The Americans have arguably the best squad in France this summer. But they are far from a perfect unit as they aim to become world champions again
The US womens national team are considered a favorite to win next months World Cup, and theres good reason for it. The team are No1 in the world rankings and have outscored their opponents 85-16 over the past 18 months. The Americans again showed their dominance in a 3-0 win over Mexico on Sunday.
But the refrain from coach Jill Ellis afterward was that the USWNT still have plenty to work on if they want to win in France, and US Soccer shouldnt make room in the trophy case just yet. As strong as the US are, they arent invincible. Here are the four issues the Americans need to address if they want to win a World Cup, and the one big thing that may make up for all their problems.
Concern No1: They are too vulnerable to the counterattack
If theres one reason to be excited about the USWNTs chances in France, it may be their ultra-attacking approach. That, however, is also something to worry about. The US attack is the teams best asset, and it makes sense that Ellis wants to maximize it. But that also means that the team are never just focused on their defense.
The teams full-backs, Kelley OHara and Crystal Dunn, and defensive midfielder Julie Ertz are given freedom to push up the field and support attacks. When that happens, the US are only a quick counterattack away from being exposed by a direct ball that can get behind center-backs Becky Sauerbrunn and Abby Dahlkemper, who lack the speed to win a footrace against the worlds top strikers.
Mexico on Sunday were never going to threaten the Americans El Tri didnt even qualify for the World Cup but there were moments when, if Mexico had controlled the ball a bit better, they could have been in on goal. Weve seen it happen to the USWNT before. In the quarter-final of the Rio Olympics in 2016, it took Sweden just three passes to bypass every outfield player on the USWNT and score.
The USWNTs hope may be that even if that happens, they can outscore their opponents, but they are exposing themselves to a calculated risk.
Theres been a lot of talk that, Oh, the back line is letting in a lot of goals but people seem to forget that the way our team plays, we commit a lot of numbers forward, Crystal Dunn said on Sunday. We really do push numbers high not to say we cant recover, but there is risk that are taken with the way we play. Were a transition-based team and we love to go forward, especially myself.
Concern No2: The attack can be too one dimensional
If theres one part of the attack the USWNT doesnt need to worry about, its along the flanks. Thats where the Americans generate the bulk of their goals, and it makes sense after all, when Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath are on the wings (or substitutes Christen Press and Mallory Pugh), of course thats where goals come from. Add in Dunn and OHara, as already mentioned, and the wide channels are where the USWNT is busiest.
But the problem is that the USWNT relies on using the flanks so heavily that its unclear theres a sufficient Plan B if opponents can successfully nullify the wingers. As we saw in the aforementioned game against Sweden in 2016 the USWNTs worst loss in history the USWNT didnt know how to score when it wasnt along the flanks. They crossed the ball 38 times in that game, and again on Sunday against Mexico, much of the USWNTs best chances came from crosses.
The USWNT has looked to have Dahlkemper lob direct, vertical balls up the field as a means of getting chances centrally. But their best bet, it seems, will be that Rose Lavelle will be able to work her magic in France.
Its the playmakers first World Cup, and shes one of the youngest players on the team, but Lavelle dazzled on Sunday with her back heel flicks and crafty dribbling for the 45 minutes she played. Shes the only true No. 10 on the roster, and the USWNT needs her to have a good World Cup. She has dealt with injuries over the past year, but says she is ready for that to be behind her.
I think I can clean some things up, but I feel like Im finally coming back into the form I was when I first started playing professionally, so Im excited about that, Lavelle said Sunday.
Concern No3: Some key positions lack depth
The USWNT have perhaps the most talented player pool in the world. Thats partly why so many American-born players with dual nationality have opted to play for other countries breaking into the USWNT ranks is incredibly difficult.
But on the 23-player roster that Ellis has chosen, some positions have very little depth. That means the USWNT are an injury or suspension away from a big problem. Ellis, for her part, seems to realize that. Thats the only way to explain why Heath, one of the best right wingers in the world, played 26 minutes as a left-back on Sunday. The only true left-back on the roster is Dunn (who is an attacking midfielder for her club) and Ellis has hinted her preferred left-back backup is OHara, the starting right-back. Tierna Davidson, a center-back and the youngest player on the roster, is another option. But now, it appears Tobin Heath has been added to that depth chart.
We did throw a lot at them in terms of checking some boxes and making sure we got a lot of things covered, Ellis said Sunday.
Concern No4: The defense looks shaky
The USWNT have played teams ranked in the top 10 of the world five times in 2019. In all but one of those games, against France, England, Japan and Australia, the Americans conceded multiple goals. That has to be a worry.
Yes, the USWNTs positive goal differential in any calendar year or any tournament will be huge, but thats because they play so many weak teams. Against better competition, the USWNT defense have struggled to be as effective. In France, they will probably have to beat many of those top 10 teams.
As Dunn points out, some of it is because of the USAs attacking attacking nature. But part of it seems to be a drop-off in quality from a goalkeeper who cant match Hope Solo its not Alyssa Naehers fault that Solo was a generational talent and a defensive line that is still gelling. The back line will need to work on organization and communication before arriving in France, which is only two weeks away.
Why all this may not matter: The USWNT have the best players in the world
All those worries aside, the USWNT have arguably the best squad in the world. They may lack the perfect like-for-like depth that would help fans rest easy, but there arent any bad players on this team.
The attacking line of Alex Morgan flanked by Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe is difficult to improve upon. Off the bench come Carli Lloyd, Christen Press and Mallory Pugh, who would be starters on just about every other team in the world. The USWNTs central midfield is as deep as possible on a 23-woman roster. And even the back line, which has suffered some communication and chemistry issues, is full of individual talent, like the smart leadership of Sauerbrunn. They just need to work together better.
The USWNT have vulnerabilities, but if they can get the reps to build cohesion and the coach can put every player in her best position, the USWNT have a shot of winning it all and thats pretty remarkable, given how rare repeat winners are.
When we leave here, Ellis said from New Jersey on Sunday, its keeping it simple and doing what we do as best as we can. In other words: Ellis just needs to put players in their best positions and they will take care of the rest.
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