3 takeaways from the USWNT's win over Japan, Alex Morgan's hat trick

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/olympics/rio-2016/a/1124331/" data-ylk="slk:Alex Morgan">Alex Morgan</a> celebrates one of her three goals against Japan in the 2018 Tournament of Nations. (Getty)
Alex Morgan celebrates one of her three goals against Japan in the 2018 Tournament of Nations. (Getty)

The United States women’s national team has not yet qualified for the 2019 World Cup. But its journey to France began in earnest on Thursday, and in style – with a 4-2 win over Japan in its Tournament of Nations opener.

In their first game of the World Cup year, the U.S. women showed why they’re the favorite to repeat as champions. Alex Morgan bagged a hat trick, and on balance, the U.S. was decidedly better than its opponent in the 2011 and 2015 World Cup finals.

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Here are three takeaways from the win:

1. The front three were individually and collectively excellent

The U.S. struggled to build out of the back early on. But buildup issues are irrelevant when you have a front three that can create for themselves and for others out of nothing.

Christen Press got the start over Tobin Heath on the right wing, and came infield to create the first of Morgan’s three goals. The Press-Megan Rapinoe-Morgan connection certainly looked ready for World Cup qualifying in October, and for next summer:

In the second half, as if those three didn’t bring enough firepower to the U.S. attack, Tobin Heath made fools out of two Japanese defenders immediately after entering the game as a substitute for Press:

That was Morgan’s third goal. Rapinoe created and finished off the Americans’ fourth with a burst through the middle:

For extended stretches, Thursday’s game was full-fledged chaos. And U.S. head coach Jill Ellis will love that. If the U.S. can play chaotic matches, particularly against technical but physically overmatched opponents like Japan, its athleticism and skill will almost always win the day. In addition

2. There are moving parts in midfield

Ellis went with a midfield three of Julie Ertz, Morgan Brian and Lindsey Horan, which made sense on paper. But there were structural problems.

Ertz played in the middle of the three, theoretically as the holding midfielder with Horan and Brian as 8s beside (and slightly in front of) her. But the three were too flat. There was very little depth – nobody to play behind Japan’s midfield line and connect midfield to Morgan. Horan, who’s comfortable in such a role, on a few occasions dropped deep to try to get on the ball. She looked slightly frustrated. Brian was mostly ineffective, and was replaced by McCall Zerboni at halftime.

Ertz, meanwhile, was strong, but her aggressiveness can be problematic in what seemingly should have been a holding role. Her overzealous pressing sparked a series of U.S. mistakes on Japan’s first-half equalizer:

Tierna Davidson, a 19-year-old Stanford center back, looked to be at fault on first glance. But Davidson had to step because all three U.S. midfielders had pressed high and Japan had played through them:

(Original video: Fox Sports Go)
(Original video: Fox Sports Go)

She and Crystal Dunn weren’t faultless, but the issue was more a midfield one than a back four one.

Ellis has options in midfield – particularly Zerboni, Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle – and she’ll surely tinker with the alignment and personnel over the final two Tournament of Nations games, and throughout the next 11 months.

3. Crystal Dunn was up and down at left back

The U.S. fullback pool is very shallow. That’s one of the many angles of the Jaelene Hinkle controversy. Hinkle is widely considered the best American left back, but turned down a national team call-up last year because she did not want to wear the USWNT’s Pride Month jerseys with rainbow lettering. She was named to the preliminary squad for the Tournament of Nations, but was one of two players cut to get the roster down to 23.

With Hinkle out of the mix, Ellis went to Dunn, the ultimate utility player, at left back.

Dunn’s performance, on the whole, was promising, but it wasn’t without a few warning signs. In one first-half sequence, she recovered well with the ball on Japan’s left wing, defended well one-v-one, and blocked a shot. In general, she was active on both sides of the ball.

On multiple occasions, she mistakenly dove in to a challenge or got sucked to the ball, once caught out by a dummy. She failed to tuck inside when Davidson stepped on Japan’s first goal. But her speed acts as a tremendous safety net.

Her distribution, as a natural attacker, is also an asset, especially with Rapinoe tending to cut inside off the left. Her left-footed cross led to Morgan’s second:

Dunn may not be the ideal starter at left back. And it might not be – er, definitely isn’t – her best position. But she certainly looks like a viable option.

Other notes

– Despite calls for uncapped goalkeeper Adrianna Franch to get a look, Alyssa Naeher played all 90 minutes in net, and is the clear No. 1. But could she perhaps have done better on Japan’s second goal?

– The game got stretched over the last 25 minutes, and the U.S. back line got caught ridiculously high up the field. That’s a product of the type of match the U.S. wants to play, and of the setting – the Tournament of Nations is relatively meaningless. But it would have been nice to see the U.S. calm play down and see out the win at 4-1 in uneventful fashion.

– Since we didn’t reiterate it enough above: Alex Morgan is really, really good. She’s now scored 16 goals in her last 16 international games.

– Full USWNT starting 11 (4-3-3): Alyssa Naeher; Emily Sonnett, Abby Dahlkemper, Tierna Davidson, Crystal Dunn; Julie Ertz, Lindsey Horan, Morgan Brian; Christen Press, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe.

– Subs: McCall Zerboni for Morgan Brian (HT), Tobin Heath for Christen Press (54′), Rose Lavelle for Julie Ertz (64′), Carli Lloyd for Alex Morgan (73′), Casey Short for Megan Rapinoe (74′), Sam Mewis for Lindsey Horan (74′)

– Australia beat Brazil 3-1 in Thursday’s opener. The U.S. plays Australia on Sunday (7 p.m. ET, FS1) and concludes the round-robin tournament next Thursday vs. Brazil (8:30 p.m. ET, FS1).

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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