By CAITLIN MURRAY
The toughest test for the U.S. Women’s National Team before the Women’s World Cup raised far more questions than answers for coach Jill Ellis.
France handed the USWNT a tough 2-0 loss as the Americans were overrun and outplayed in the midfield Sunday night in Lorient, France. The loss was the USWNT’s first-ever to France and the USWNT’s first time being shut out in back-to-back games in 13 years.
The big storyline heading into the match was goalkeeper Hope Solo’s suspension, which meant No. 2 backup Ashlyn Harris started for the Americans and earned her fifth international cap. But the story from the pitch Sunday was one of the Americans struggling to control possession as only a lack of finishing from France seemed to keep the score down.
Harris did make two key back-to-back stops that kept the USWNT in the match early. Laura Georges hit a rocketing volley from the box on a set piece in the 33rd minute that Harris knocked over the bar. A minute later, Harris did the same to a long-range Amandine Henry blast.
France dominated the Americans with clever combination play and slick passing, but failed to finish a rash of golden opportunities. Eugenie Le Sommer twice had scoring chances in the first half, but misfired on both, hitting the crossbar on the second in the 16th minute. An early Elodie Thomis cross was also poorly met by Louisa Necib, whose header sailed wide.
Le Sommer finally broke through five minutes into the second half, nodding a Thomis cross past Harris. A minute later, an errant Jessica Houara cross tucked inside the far post for a fluke of a goal.
As a late substitute, Abby Wambach drew a questionable penalty kick, but failed to convert from the spot in the 66th minute. Aside from a shaky couple moments far out of net, French goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi had done well to hold her position throughout the match.
Carli Lloyd, the USWNT’s top goalscorer last year, never seemed to find a rhythm in the left flank spot where Ellis started her in a return to a 4-4-2 formation. Lloyd had several volley attempts similar to ones she scored in spectacular fashion all throughout 2014, but struggled with both pace and placement on the day.
In a departure from the 4-3-3 that Ellis has been committed to since taking the helm of the USWNT in April, a pairing of Lauren Holiday and Morgan Brian occupied the central midfield, but never really clicked.
Alex Morgan, in her return from an injury sustained during World Cup qualifying in October, led the attack in tandem with Christen Press, and both did well to thread passes and find spaces behind France’s back line, even as France cut out scoring chances. Sydney Leroux was out with a minor injury.
The match was likely the toughest one the USWNT will get in before the Women’s World Cup in Canada as the quality of opponents will drop off heading toward June. It will surely be a disconcerting result as the USWNT has drawn the toughest group of the World Cup — the U.S. is the only seeded country in a group with two other top 10 teams.
This is Ellis’ second loss as coach after Brazil beat the Americans 3-2 in December, buoyed by a Marta hat trick at the International Tournament of Brasilia. In the final, the two sides met again for a scoreless draw, making Sunday’s shutout the USWNT’s second in a row for the first time in 13 years.
Up next, the USWNT heads to Milton Keynes where they will face England on Friday at 3 p.m. ET, live on FOX Sports 1.
See highlights of the match below: