It has been 367 days since the United States women’s national team lost. Heading into Sunday’s Tournament of Nations showdown with Australia, it had been 17 games, 11 opponents, 12 months, zero defeats. Through 89 minutes at Rentschler Field in Connecticut, it appeared the unbeaten run would end there.
— U.S. Soccer WNT (@ussoccer_wnt) July 30, 2018
Horan’s 90th-minute header earned the U.S. a 1-1 draw in a two-sided, high-level game that may very well be a precursor for a meeting of some sort at the World Cup next summer.
Here are some takeaways from the draw:
1. The U.S. got matched by its top World Cup challenger
If not for Horan’s equalizer, there would have been questions. There would have been frustration. There would have been calls for tactical tweaks and lineup changes. To some extent, there still will be. All are inevitable when dominance is rudely interrupted, and it was when Chloe Logarzo finished off an Australian counter in the 22nd minute:
Australia take the lead!
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) July 29, 2018
But the biggest takeaway from Sunday – win, loss or draw – was simple: These are two of the best teams in the world. They may very well be No. 1 and 2. They battled for 90 minutes, and were ultimately inseparable. Based on their quality, that sounds about right.
The Americans’ last loss was to Australia, and it’s no coincidence they were almost dealt a second in just over a year. The Matildas equaled the U.S. physically, something not many opponents can do. They won individual battles and limited the effectiveness of the USWNT’s ruthless chaos, especially over the first half-hour.
The hosts were still the better team, even if only slightly. They still looked like a World Cup favorite, even if a tenuous one. But Australia forced the U.S. to beat it technically, and the reigning world champs had some trouble doing just that.
2. The U.S. midfield was once again lacking
There were structural problems in the middle of the park in a 4-2 win over Japan. Similar issues were more evident against a stronger Australian team, even if the U.S. eventually edged the central battle.
Head coach Jill Ellis went with the same threesome of Julie Ertz, Morgan Brian and Horan. They were slightly more dynamic in their second game together in four days. But their spacing still left a lot to be desired. With no player significantly more advanced than the other two – even if that role might suit Horan – the U.S. struggled to progress the ball through midfield. Two players would occasionally check into similar areas, which was problematic:
There is reason to believe this group of players could resolve their own problems. But Ellis has to at least consider a personnel change in search of more vertical depth and movement. Horan and Ertz are probably must-starts, but Brian was again replaced by McCall Zerboni in the second half, and the U.S. was better after the switch. Even if just for the sake of experimentation, it would be nice to see a different alignment in the Tournament of Nations finale on Thursday against Brazil.
In the end, however, these are all first-world problems. There was more to like than dislike about the U.S. performance.
3. A scare, but not cause for concern
Let’s take a step back for a second. Buried under the simple fact that the U.S. won the last women’s World Cup are plenty of circumstances that would send the average international soccer program spinning into disarray. The Yanks have dealt with a raft of injuries to starters and other contributors in 2018, with a few still out. They’re in the process of striking a balance between a beloved older generation and a promising younger one. They’ve reportedly questioned Ellis. Recently, they’ve operated amid off-field controversy.
And yet the U.S. women have won 15 of their last 18 games against predominantly top-tier or second-tier competition. They haven’t lost. That’s astounding.
Sunday superficially represented a step back. Viewed another way, though, the U.S. had almost two-thirds of the ball. It outshot the Aussies 18-8. Adjusting for chance quality, that tally would be a bit tighter, but the U.S. clearly created more. Australia’s goal was the product of a long series of atypical individual shortcomings. The Americans, meanwhile, strung together several moves that didn’t bear fruit. Oh, and did we mention that Australia is really, really good?
All things considered … pretty darn impressive.
Tobin Heath, back from injury, got the start ahead of Christen Press, but was mostly left out on an island and ignored on the right wing. The U.S. attack often seemed one-sided.
Crystal Dunn is the starting left back until further notice, and again put in a performance featuring more positives than negatives.
Rapinoe failed to finish off the best team attack of the night after winning the ball near midfield and receiving a through-ball from Alex Morgan. She didn’t have her best game. But even when she supposedly struggles. Her combination of ability and attacking ambition stands out.
The U.S. engineered a few half-chances with quick throw-ins.
Ellis made two changes from the win over Japan, with Sauerbrunn and Heath returning from injuries. Full lineup: Alyssa Naeher; Emily Sonnett, Abby Dahlkemper, Becky Sauerbrunn, Crystal Dunn; Julie Ertz, Lindsey Horan, Morgan Brian; Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe.
The Americans now sit tied atop the Tournament of Nations round-robin table with Australia, and with a slight advantage on the goals scored tiebreaker. To win it, they’ll have to A) win or draw against Brazil on Thursday, and B) equal or better Australia’s result (against Japan).
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