The United States women's national team opened its SheBelieves Cup campaign Wednesday with a 2-2 draw against Japan that suggests the U.S. has plenty of room to improve before the World Cup this summer.
The Americans started the scoring in Philadelphia as Tobin Heath ran at a defender, found space and crossed to Megan Rapinoe, who was able to tap in the goal (via FOX Soccer):
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) February 28, 2019
Japan returned fire in the second half as a Tierna Davidson giveaway gifted a shot to Emi Nakajima, who struck it well.
The Americans momentarily found the lead again shortly after Christen Press came into the game for Mallory Pugh. Press crossed a ball that Alex Morgan did well to redirect into the net in the 76th minute.
But some sloppy defending just before the whistle allowed Japan to equalize again on a Yui Hasegawa strike:
😳 Japan provide a late twist and score a last-minute equalizer against the USWNT! pic.twitter.com/xCoKzCm9fF
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) February 28, 2019
The result left the Americans with ground to make up in the SheBelieves Cup standings as they split the points with Japan. Earlier in the day, England beat Brazil, 2-1, to earn all three points and sits atop the table after the first round of games.
Up next, the U.S. faces England on Saturday in Nashville, Tennessee.
Here are three quick takeaways:
The back line cohesion is still coming together
The U.S. back line hasn't had enough reps together over the past two years – and a big part of that has been due to injuries, including long ones to Becky Sauerbrunn and Tierna Davidson. Wednesday's match was no different: Davidson was just returning from injury and looked a bit rusty next to fellow center back Abby Dahlkemper, while Sauerbrunn was left out of the starting lineup due to a minor knee issue.
The back line against Japan was as close to the USA's first choice as coach Jill Ellis has had available in a while, thanks to the return of Kelley O'Hara at right back, across from Crystal Dunn on the left. But the Americans still looked exposed on occasion in transition. Ellis wants Dunn and O'Hara to bomb forward – she refers to the USA's attacking shape as being "asymmetrical" so Dunn can be a de facto midfielder in possession – but it's a risky strategy. Japan isn't a team exactly known for its pace, so if Japan can find moments on the counter, what about the rest of the competition the U.S. will face in the World Cup?
The counter wasn't actually what cost the U.S. the win. Rather, Japan scored on a bad giveaway from Davidson, who returned to the lineup for the first time since September. But while that rust should improve, the systemic concerns about the U.S.'s high line and the space left in behind should remain.
The coach is still keen to tinker
Lindsey Horan, who appears to be part of Ellis' preferred starting lineup, is out of the SheBelieves Cup with a quad injury, which seemingly left a chance open to the many other central midfield options on the roster. The most like-for-like switch would have been Samantha Mewis, whose ability to feed through-balls from a deeper position, physicality and aerial presence are somewhat similar to Horan. McCall Zerboni and Andi Sullivan are two depth pieces who could've gotten the start against Japan, or Ellis could've given Carli Lloyd a chance to reprise the role.
But instead Ellis turned to Mallory Pugh, who has lately solidified a spot as the right wing backup behind Tobin Heath. Lined up in the middle of the park with the creative No. 10 Rose Lavelle and holding midfielder Julie Ertz, Pugh gave the Americans a more attacking look. It didn't necessarily help as the central midfield didn't look on the same page at times and passes were a step off.
It seems unlikely that Pugh will be in the central midfield at the World Cup this summer. The U.S. has other dedicated center mids who look more comfortable in the role while Pugh is a valuable second-choice option on the wing. But Ellis, true to her pattern as a coach ever since the 2016 Olympics ended, opted to tinker.
There's still time to figure things out
After the draw to Japan on Wednesday, the U.S. women have seven tune-up matches left before the games begin in France for this summer's World Cup. That's not a ton of time, but it should be enough to fix their biggest woes. For all the vulnerabilities in the team, this may still be the most talented U.S. women's national team in the history of the program.
But it's up to Ellis to pick the right squad, shore up some of the tactical vulnerabilities in the Americans’ ultra-attacking approach and set the players up to succeed. They’re are better than they showed against Japan, and now for the sake of building confidence before the World Cup, the pressure is on to prove it vs. England next.
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