The US Women’s National Team started their march to what they hope will be a third FIFA Women’s World Cup title with a 3-1 win over Australia last night behind a pair of goals from Megan Rapinoe. Lest you think the Americans waltzed to the front of Group D with a comfortable win, that was not the case. The match broke out into a tale of two halves, with one showing what the US CAN be as the tournament progresses and the other shining a glaring light on what we fear the US WILL be.
The first half confirmed some of the worst fears of US soccer fans as to what to expect from the team in Canada. Were it not for a fortuitous deflection on Rapinoe’s first goal and a stellar performance in net by Hope Solo, Australia could have been up 2-0 at the half. The ever-present deficiency of playing without a dedicated defensive presence in the midfield showed itself as the Aussies were able to get wide with the ball and move it in the offensive third to a comfort spot in front of the US center backs. The goal by Lisa DeVanna had been coming for a while in the match and was the result of Ali Krieger being pulled inside and a pass from Sam Kerr that went behind Lauren Holiday and into the center back channel where Michelle Heyman collected it and moved the ball onto DeVanna for the tally. On the offensive end, the planned reliance on set pieces around the box and a direct style of play didn’t yield much production and the sides went into the locker room level at 1.
The second half saw a better form of the US, with the front four moving more about the pitch. Christen Press’ game-winner came with her occupying one of the central attacking positions and Sydney Leroux out on the left flank as opposed to their on-paper slots on the field (right wing and striker, respectively). With the lead, the more technical aspects of the American game came out, with Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan, and Morgan Brian introduced to the fray and an insurance goal from Rapinoe coming by way of a 40 yard run with the ball into the Australian penalty area. The central midfield pairing of Holiday and Carli Lloyd sorted itself out somewhat in the final 45 with the latter taking up some of the grunt work and the former able to get up the field in a double-pivot that works better within the team’s framework than requiring Holiday to take up a static, deeper-lying position in front of the center backs. When both are allowed to defend and attack as the game plays out (not at the same time, mind you), the team looks more balanced and it better utilizes Holiday’s vision and calm and Lloyd’s aggression that borders a little on nastiness (and I mean it as a compliment).
Up next is Sweden on Friday night. The game that, before the tournament, most predicted would decide the Group D winner (with both teams seemingly assured of passage to the knockout rounds) is now a must-win for the Swedes after their 3-3 draw with Nigeria that shows cracks in their back line and an inability to deal with the Nigerians’ collective speed. The US needs to take a more technical approach to this match, which I feel requires utilizing Press and Amy Rodriguez (or Alex Morgan if she is capable of starting and going at least 60 minutes) as the forwards and bringing Heath into the first XI on the right side of midfield. Building upon the second-half performance of Holiday and Lloyd will be vital in order to maintain possession as well as stop the sort of jailbreaks that the Aussies got when Holiday moved too far ahead of the slot in front of the center backs, and instituting the double-pivot mentality will be key to managing occasional flare-ups that expose a back line that is a bit raw as a unit (Julie Johnston was somewhat responsible in the end for the DeVanna goal and had a moment in the second half where she was literally chasing back after getting caught-out on a counterattack through the middle). Everyone can come down from the ledges for a couple of days, but keep your safety harnesses handy as the group phase looks to be a bumpy ride.