According to conventional wisdom, it's best to start a World Cup off slowly and grow into the tournament, turning up the heat until reaching a rolling boil for the last game or two.
History seems to back this up. Teams that were historically in their finest fettle early on in international tournaments fizzled as the month wore on. Recall, for instance, how in 2003 the United States began the defense of their second Women's World Cup title with 3-1 and 5-0 wins over Sweden and Nigeria, respectively.
They then bested North Korea 3-0 in their final group game. But in spite of an 11-1 scoring record in the group stage, they stumbled through the quarterfinals in a 1-0 win over Norway before falling to Germany 3-0 in the semifinals. That team peaked too early, wilting in the tournament's business end.
This, perhaps, will offer the present incarnation of the U.S. women's national team consolation from its tepid start to the 2015 edition. Because there is an awful lot of room left for growing.
A jittery and disjointed performance in the Americans' opener yielded a 3-1 win over Australia, courtesy of two flashes of Megan Rapinoe's bottomless whimsy and an instinctual finish from Christen Press. But had a few things shaken out different early on, had a few balls bounced slightly differently and had Hope Solo not been immense in spite of more off-field trouble, the U.S. could well have gone down early and lost that game.
On Friday, a 0-0 stalemate with Sweden followed. The Americans were arguably twice denied a penalty – while Sweden was at least once. But the Yanks created just two chances, as Abby Wambach's header was saved and Carli Lloyd's went just wide. Sweden, meanwhile, came closer to scoring when Caroline Seger's dink from inside the box was headed off her own bar by Meghan Klingenberg to save a point for the U.S.
The Swedes simply suffocated the American offense with their air-tight banks of defensive lines. The U.S. midfield, meanwhile, in spite of being so strongly staffed, was unable to stake a claim for the middle of the park for a second game in a row.
It's early yet, and a win on Tuesday over Nigeria – a very athletic team that nevertheless doesn't compare to Australia or Sweden – assures the Americans of finishing first in the most difficult group and, probably, a soft opponent in the round of 16. (And they are all but certain of a place in the knockout stage already.)
And it's worth noting here that while expectations tower over them – this is partly self-inflicted; partly not – there are several key players who are playing in their first World Cup. It's easy to forget that Sydney Leroux has never done this before. Neither have Press, Klingenberg, Julie Johnston or Morgan Brian. Of those five, four have started both games played. The fifth, Brian, began the game against Sweden.
But the performances thus far will make the team's skeptics – and there are a fair few of them – understandably nervous. Consider the last 15 months, after all. There was the worst-ever performance at the 2014 Algarve Cup, when the USA slumped to seventh place. Then came the unexpected dismissal of head coach Tom Sermanni, who had set about rejuvenating and modernizing the team. At the end of that year, with Jill Ellis in charge by then, the Americans won just one of four games at a tournament in Brazil.
They started 2015 with a 2-0 friendly loss to France, followed by a tepid 1-0 win over England. Things seemed to be falling into place thereafter, though, with a triumph at this year's Algarve Cup and a series of showings in friendlies that suggested progress. The team seemed to have turned the corner. But its struggles were still fresh in the mind when, on the eve of these first two World Cup games, there was yet more Hope Solo controversy. Ahead of the Sweden game, the New York Times ran an interview with a sprinkling of inflammatory quotes from former head coach Pia Sundhage.
If the Americans claimed to have burrowed into a "bubble," from wherein they were impervious to outside influence, the performances didn't exactly support that assertion. Because this was surely not how the USA had imagined things would look a week or so into their World Cup.
But so it is, and they have improvements to make if they are to win their third Women's World Cup – and a first in 16 years – at long last. Lloyd and Lauren Holiday, surely the best tandem of central midfielders in the world, have to assert themselves in central midfield. That perhaps isn't an entirely fair thing to ask because, in Ellis's 4-4-2 formation, they are often outnumbered there and required to shuttle ceaselessly from defense to attack.
But without that link-up between the lines, without the playmakers connecting the dots, the strikers have been short of service. The three goals scored thus far came from Rapinoe's individual efforts from out wide and a nice cutback from Leroux to the savvy Press on the rare ball for her to run onto. Other than that, it's been a lot of direct play, high balls hopefully pelted forward – which isn't at all a sound policy on the bouncy, unpredictable artificial turf this tournament is being played on – for opposing defenses to deal with in comfort.
Ellis speaks about tactics enthusiastically and ambitiously, professing a vision of possession and wing-play. But, in truth, it has all looked fairly rudimentary on the field. The wingers, rather than the avenues for everything to flow through, have turned into barren wastelands, where little soccer is being played by the Americans. Rapinoe can't help but drift inside from out on the left flank. Press, fielded on the right in the first game and some of the second, is a central forward by trade and did the same. Brian, who started against Sweden on the right, is really a central midfielder. Even striker Amy Rodriguez saw some time out there, while the real wingers – Tobin Heath and Heather O'Reilly – have been underutilized and not used at all, respectively.
The Americans have another game to figure out their issues. After that, this becomes a one-and-done tournament. And when that time comes, they had better show some growth.