Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images
By CAITLIN MURRAY
The U.S. Women’s National Team was certainly keen to bounce back against England and recover from a harsh loss to France days earlier. But while the USWNT has talked up Sunday’s 1-0 win at Milton Keynes as a step forward, it seemed to show the USWNT still has plenty of unanswered questions.
These questions aren’t actually new — the USWNT’s 2-0 loss to France last week already exposed the need for changes. But coach Jill Ellis didn’t seem to make enough improvements to nab a convincing win in the second-leg of the team’s European tour.
The news isn’t all bad. The American women do have some bright spots worth highlighting. Still, the mixed bag of performances from Europe probably won’t be enough to quell the concerns of fans who have been underwhelmed by the USWNT recently.
Here is SBI’s breakdown of the USWNT win vs. England:
MINOR ADJUSTMENTS WON’T BE ENOUGH FOR WORLD CUP
To hear the USWNT players tell it, the USWNT’s win (which really should’ve been a tie) was a “huge step” forward for the team. But the difference in result from their loss to France days earlier seemed more a function of England being a less capable team than it was due to the relatively minor adjustments Ellis made.
From the USWNT’s 2-0 loss to France to their eked-out win over England five days later, Ellis’ major attacking change was adding Abby Wambach as a starter up top alongside Alex Morgan, dropping Christen Press down to the midfield and putting Tobin Heath on the bench. But, as we noted after the team’s loss to France, the Press-Morgan duo was one of the only bright spots of that first match while placing Carli Lloyd on the flank simply didn’t work.
England came out looking scared of the Americans from the starting whistle and sat back, giving the Americans space to roam — and yet, the American game plan seemed to revolve around Route 1 soccer. Indeed, the mission at kickoff was apparently to lob the ball through the air and hope Morgan gets on the end of it.
The American midfield failed to work the ball up the field and connect passes, which was the same problem they faced against France. Until the USWNT midfield can be re-worked in a way that allows for possession and ball movement, other field adjustments simply won’t be enough.
THE USWNT STILL NEEDS A DEFENSIVE MIDFIELDER
In the absence of a natural defensive midfielder, the USWNT has seen a revolving door of attacking players tasked with those duties. While Lauren Holiday and Morgan Brian can do the job, they tend to get exposed against tougher opponents and remain at their best when they are attacking.
If Holiday, for instance, could push higher up the field with a defensive midfielder behind her, we may get a chance to see the FC Kansas City version of Holiday, who has been nothing short of exquisite in the central midfield. Unfortunately, we’ve seen a different Holiday on national team duty — against top 10 opponents like France and England, Holiday has looked a bit like a round peg being jammed into a square hole.
At this late stage, just four months out from the World Cup, it may be too late to groom a dedicated defensive midfielder, but it could be worth Ellis giving Julie Johnston another look there. Johnston was a proven ball-winner as a No. 6 while at Santa Clara and appears to be the most natural choice for the position, barring an unexpected resurgence from 37-year-old Shannon Boxx, who hasn’t featured for the USWNT in two years.
Without a defensive midfielder that is comfortable doing the job, the USWNT will continue to have trouble connecting its lines and moving the ball up the field. In that case, expect more underwhelming performances like those against France and England.
SAUERBRUNN IS THE USWNT’S BEST PLAYER
Defenders don’t tend to get the spotlight very much and on the USWNT, a team that scored 79 goals in 24 matches last year, it’s easy to see why. But the best player for the U.S. women in recent months may not be a striker — she may be on the back line.
Center back Becky Sauerbrunn’s consistency and reliability are unmatched on the USWNT right now. She was one of the few bright spots in the USWNT’s beating against France last week and she was again a key player against England. Morgan may be the star of the strikers, but injury and rustiness have been a major disruption while Sauerbrunn has quietly kept the USWNT back line steady.
Christie Rampone missed the USWNT’s European tour with a minor back injury, but Sauerbrunn and Whitney Engen made it difficult to notice Rampone was even missing. With Sauerbrunn taking the lead and Engen stepping up alongside her, Ellis may want to consider not using 39-year-old Rampone as a starter.