USWNT earns second straight SheBelieves Cup draw, and questions must be asked about defense

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Julie Ertz (8) plays the ball amid a group of England players on Saturday during the SheBelieves Cup in Nashville, Tenn. (Reuters)
Julie Ertz (8) plays the ball amid a group of England players on Saturday during the SheBelieves Cup in Nashville, Tenn. (Reuters)

One more match for the U.S. women's national team in the SheBelieves Cup, one more up-and-down performance.

The USWNT again settled for a draw 2-2 on Saturday, this time against England, as the team’s SheBelieves Cup campaign rolls on in worrying fashion three months out from this summer's World Cup in France.

Megan Rapinoe opened the scoring with a brilliant volley in the 33rd minute (via FOX Soccer):

But the USWNT's lead was short-lived as only a minute later, a miscommunication between goalkeeper Adrianna Franch and her back line gifted England an indirect free kick, which Steph Houghton struck well:

England took the lead as Fran Kirby flicked a lovely ball to Nikita Parris, who finished far post in the 52nd minute. The Americans found their equalizer in the 66th minute on a scramble in the box, with Tobin Heath poking a loose ball into the back of the net.

“Obviously there's a lot of things we need to fix from the last two games from the goals-against,” Rapinoe said after Saturday's draw. “There's some great lessons in here for us but we have to learn them. We have to get better – we cannot make the same mistakes over and over again. Too many technical errors, too many tactical lapses and we're getting exposed for it.”

With the 2-2 draw, the USWNT sits third in the SheBelieves Cup standings with two points. Japan is first with four points on a tiebreaker with England, which is second. Brazil, winless through two matches, sits third and will face the USWNT next.

Can the goalkeeper depth chart change?

In a surprise twist, coach Jill Ellis' proclaimed No. 1 goalkeeper did not start against England. Alyssa Naeher, who Ellis hinted would get all the SheBelieves Cup minutes before the tournament started, was out with a "minor shoulder injury" and will miss the rest of the tournament. Ellis opted not to start Ashlyn Harris, who is the presumed No. 2 and has 19 caps. Instead, she gave Franch her debut in goal.

Unfortunately for Franch, back line woes for the Americans meant she conceded a couple goals that she was helpless to block. But Franch's debut raises the possibility that the depth chart could (or should) be scrutinized. After all, Naeher's injury – which, it has to be said, comes after a not-so-great performance vs. Japan – is a reminder of how quickly the goalkeeper position can turn into a crisis. Reps matter, which Franch's debut and the mix-up that resulted in England's first goal proves. If Naeher were to get injured right before the World Cup, does Ellis know who will take her place?

The defense finds new ways to raise concerns

In the USWNT's last game, a 2-2 draw to Japan, the defense looked shaky, and a quick turnaround to face England seemed like the ideal opportunity to push past those problems and tighten things up. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. Communication issues, individual mistakes and systemic concerns all returned in back-to-back games.

Houghton's finish on England's first goal was sensational and there wasn't much that Franch could do about it. Rather, the concern is how England was awarded the free kick in the first place: more communication issues along the back line, as were evident in the Japan game. Kelley O'Hara knocked a back-pass that was apparently intended for one of the center backs, but it rolled through to Franch, who picked it up with her hands.

On England's second goal, individual performances were worrying again. Crystal Dunn got caught ball-watching and Abby Dahlkemper failed to cover the far post.

But the bigger concern was a tactical one. The USWNT had switched into a shape that saw holding midfielder Julie Ertz drop back into the defense while fullbacks O'Hara and Dunn pushed up the wings. That meant that the Americans were left counting on the attack-oriented Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh to defend in the central midfield and stop the likes of Kirby.

That, of course, didn't hold up as a sensational pass from Kirby beat the back line in one fell swoop and Parris finished clinically.

Can the Americans play more defensively?

Again, Ellis opted to start Pugh in the central midfield, which we talked about after the Japan game. And again, the Americans didn't do enough to control the midfield and keep England at bay.

Asked after Saturday's game why the USWNT has been giving up so many goals, Rapinoe summed it up well.

“A few more tactical fouls in the middle of the field on some turnovers might be a good idea,” she said. “I don't know why everyone is so hesitant to hack someone down. You either win the ball on a turnover or you foul, especially when you get into these tight games where counterattacks are going to be huge.”

An increasingly urgent question that Ellis needs to answer is, can the U.S. women play a more conservative, defensive approach? Or will they live and die by their ultra-attacking, aggressive style?

The USWNT's approach is all about creating goals as even defenders push high up the pitch toward goal, but Ellis' roster selection has also been very aggressive as she has turned to players with much more attacking profiles than defensive ones. But something needs to change, because the U.S. women can't keep conceding multiple goals and expect to defend their World Cup title.

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