Takeaways from the USWNT's bulldozing of Belgium

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/olympics/rio-2016/a/1124307/" data-ylk="slk:Carli Lloyd">Carli Lloyd</a> (10) is congratulated by <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/olympics/rio-2016/a/1124354/" data-ylk="slk:Mallory Pugh">Mallory Pugh</a> (left) and <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/olympics/rio-2016/a/1124213/" data-ylk="slk:Crystal Dunn">Crystal Dunn</a> after scoring in the USWNT's victory over Belgium on Sunday. (Getty)
Carli Lloyd (10) is congratulated by Mallory Pugh (left) and Crystal Dunn after scoring in the USWNT's victory over Belgium on Sunday. (Getty)

LOS ANGELES — The confidence-boosting phase of the World Cup cycle is underway for the United States women’s national team.

The Americans steamrolled a far inferior Belgian team 6-0 on Sunday night, despite coach Jill Ellis putting out an experimental lineup that featured many players that will likely be back-ups this summer in France.

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Carli Lloyd, the World Cup hero from four years ago who has seen her minutes dwindle drastically in the past two years, led the way with a brace in one of the USWNT’s final friendlies before this summer’s tournament.

In her first start since November, Lloyd opened scoring 14th minute, rising up to head a ball from Tierna Davidson and towering over defender Heleen Jaques.

She scored a similar goal five minutes later, getting on the end of a cross from Crystal Dunn and nodding it home.

Lindsey Horan joined in the barrage of headers in the 26th minute off a cross from Christen Press to triple the score. Then Samantha Mewis, the tallest field player the USWNT has ever had at 5 feet, 11 inches, added a header of her own seven minutes later.

With a slew of lineup changes at halftime, Alex Morgan came on and quickly made an impact, running onto a ball from Lloyd and rifling past goalkeeper Nicky Evra.

Striker Jessica McDonald added the sixth goal in stoppage time.

Belgium, ranked 20th in the world, did not qualify for this summer’s World Cup. The USWNT has just three more tune-up matches before the tournament, all against opponents ranked No. 19 or worse, so the remaining games figure to build confidence more than legitimately test the squad.

Here are three takeaways from Sunday’s match.

The tinkering continued, but this should be the last of it

Ellis has said in the past that she was shifting her focus to a core group, but that hasn’t quite happened yet. Part of it is injuries to key players, like Kelley O’Hara, but part of it is also Ellis’ stated mission to explore every option before the World Cup.

On Sunday, Ellis fielded a lineup of presumed backups and bubble players. Attackers like Lloyd, Press and Mallory Pugh, who have filled backup roles for the most part, all started. Meanwhile, McDonald and midfielder McCall Zerboni, who are far from locks to even make the World Cup roster, also saw minutes.

“In terms of some of the rotations we did, it was just looking at different pairings and making sure we get as many looks as we can,” Ellis said afterward. “Part of it was also giving other players opportunities with fresh legs to come into this game. We wanted to give other players opportunities to play and look at different options.”

Ellis has said that when May arrives, the ongoing experimentation should stop. She has said this before, of course, but this time she probably means it — by the time the USWNT’s next friendlies arrive, the World Cup will only be a month away.

If the USWNT doesn’t start getting reps and drilling down on tactics, it’s hard to see how some of the sloppiness along the back line or in the central midfield will correct itself.

U.S. coach Jill Ellis is likely done tinkering with her lineups. (Getty)
U.S. coach Jill Ellis is likely done tinkering with her lineups. (Getty)

Ali Krieger could have a shot, but it may be a longer one

The surprise inclusion of both the camp roster and then Sunday’s starting lineup was Ali Krieger, who has not appeared for the USWNT in two years, almost to the day.

Ellis has said Krieger’s roster inclusion was based on injury concerns for O’Hara, who has had lingering ankle pain. Asked by Yahoo Sports how Krieger performed Sunday and whether it could affect the upcoming World Cup roster decision, Ellis didn’t give much away.

“I always refrain from making too many judgements after a game because I want to go back and watch the film and digest,” Ellis said. “But in training she’s done well and that’s why it’s warranted a spot in the lineup tonight, to have a look at that. I will hold back on the answer as I will not reveal anything this point about a roster spot, but it was good to have Ali back in.”

The problem for Krieger is that, after two years out of the USWNT fold, she has a lot of ground to make up — and it appears both O’Hara and Emily Sonnett sit ahead of her on Ellis’ depth chart.

But Krieger said the coaching staff has helped give her the chance to succeed.

“I’ve been gone for two years, so things have changed, like the attacking mentality and defensively we’re adjusting a few things,” Krieger said after the game. “You only have a formation at the beginning of a game and at halftime, then everything else instinctual.

“The coaches have spent a lot time with me privately, showing me video and the tactical transformation since I’ve been gone. So I really appreciate that they’re willing to give me that information and spend time with me to make sure I’m up to speed with everything, so I think that’s a good sign.”

What chance does Ali Krieger (pictured) stand to make the World Cup roster this summer? Jill Ellis might know, but she isn't telling. (Getty)
What chance does Ali Krieger (pictured) stand to make the World Cup roster this summer? Jill Ellis might know, but she isn't telling. (Getty)

The opportunities to learn a lot have run out

Belgium is ranked 20th in the world, and the USWNT’s very thorough thrashing showed just how precipitous the drop-off is from the No. 1 team once you go down the world rankings.

None of the upcoming opponents in the remaining pre-World Cup friendlies are much better, which means the chances for the U.S. women to truly test themselves in game scenarios are now over.

After Sunday’s match, the players talked to reporters about how they wanted to keep a clean sheet while being relentless in the attack — but Belgium was never going to threaten the USWNT much regardless.

While the roster of depth pieces and bubble players certainly looked impressive in the win, it’s important to consider the opponent and take the result with a grain of salt. Ellis probably isn’t changing her mind on anything big because of Sunday’s performance against Belgium.

Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.

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