It probably wasn't the rout that everyone was expecting, but a 3-0 win over South Africa on Sunday puts the U.S. Women's National Team one game closer to defending their World Cup title in France.
Goals from Samantha Mewis and Carli Lloyd ensured a passable win against the World Cup-bound South Africans in Santa Clara, California, but the win didn't come easy as the guests bunkered and frustrated the Americans.
The U.S. finally broke the stalemate in the 37th minute on a smart bit of combination play from Rose Lavelle. Mewis collected the ball, took a touch and fired from outside of the box:
USA LEADS! 🎯🇺🇸
Sam Mewis gives the USWNT a 1-0 lead vs South Africa with her 10th international goal. pic.twitter.com/kbge9W0NZK
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) May 12, 2019
The U.S. couldn't score again until the 78th minute, when Mewis pounced on a deflection off a Megan Rapinoe shot:
TWO FOR MEWIS! ✌️
The USWNT catches South Africa on a quick free kick and Mewis is at the right place to knock in her 2nd of the game. 🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/KUKzOjVyzD
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) May 12, 2019
The USWNT scored once more in stoppage time in a bit of a scramble in the box. Carli Lloyd did well to pivot and turn a shot, showing why she can be such a potent substitute off the bench.
The match seemed to be designed as a confidence booster – after all, the U.S. is ranked No. 1 in the world and South Africa is ranked 49. But the U.S. did not score the sort of goals or look as dangerous as they should have.
Here are three takeaways from the lackluster match:
The tinkering isn't over yet – unless it's not tinkering and just a lack of depth
Sunday's match was one of just three for USWNT before the World Cup begins, and the time to build cohesion is rapidly approaching. Therefore, it seems that experiments and testing various game states should be over in favor of getting players repetitions together.
But notably, Julie Ertz – the team's only true defensive midfielder – was dropped into a center back role at halftime.
Ertz has been a regular starter for the USWNT in the central midfield, and for a while it has seemed that any tactical adjustments requiring her move to the backline were just tests in case the U.S. ran out of center backs in a worst-case scenario at the World Cup. But now, at this point, it's worth considering that Ellis fully expects Ertz to play both positions on a regular basis in France.
During the broadcast, FOX reported that Ellis wanted Ertz to get minutes as a center back because she may be needed there during the World Cup as a backup. Using a starting midfielder as a second-string center back doesn't seem like the most ideal way to build depth, but it's what Ellis has decided will work best.
Similarly, Crystal Dunn was moved around a bunch on Sunday as well. She went from starting at left back, to being moved to right back, to going into the attack as a midfielder. Again, Dunn has been asked to do this before, but maybe we can rule out that it's tinkering – maybe it's just what Ellis plans to do in France.
USWNT got a test against a bunker, but only barely passed
It was a bit of a surprise to see the U.S. take so long to score against a low-ranked team such as South Africa, but the World Cup-bound African side was happy to put just about every player behind the ball and defend.
It didn't make for the most thrilling soccer as the U.S. team struggled for stretches, but it did provide a useful test. The Americans will likely face a bunker or two during the World Cup, particularly as Thailand and Chile in the group stage may focus primarily on avoiding a blowout to keep their goal differential viable to advance.
It was only three years ago the Americans went up against a bunker from Sweden at the Rio Olympics and struggled to break it down, which was ultimately their downfall. After a quarterfinal exit by Sweden, the USWNT suffered its worst finish in a major tournament ever, and Ellis has focused heavily on not allowing that to happen again.
The concern may be that the U.S. wasn't proactive enough in finding or creating space to work with, hence the struggles to find goals. The USWNT just looked a bit too static and lacked urgency at times to break South Africa's lines. But it's better to spot those issues now than in France.
USWNT's varied attacking threats look promising, assuming they will click
Sunday wasn't the finest display of the USWNT's attacking prowess. But there were glimmers of how dangerous the USWNT can be in France.
Take, for instance, the return of Kelley O'Hara. She was a constant threat from the right back position and managed to break South Africa's lines over and over again. If she is fully healthy and capable of playing 90 minutes in France, she will be a nice fullback complement to Dunn on the other side so they can switch off in bombing forward.
Lavelle was the USWNT's best attacking player, mainly because of her vision and her ability to feed the ball into space and combine where many of her teammates looked stuck. She was only slated to get 60 minutes as she's also returning from a spate of injuries, but she could be the key to unlocking defenses in France.
If players like O'Hara, Dunn and Lavelle are doing their parts, then players like Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe should get the service they need to score plenty of goals.
Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, “The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer,” is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.
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