By CAITLIN MURRAY
If Sunday’s performance was any indication of what the U.S. Women’s National Team might have in store for the 2015 World Cup, they could be in for a long summer.
With the so-called Group of Death looming in Canada 2015, where the USWNT will have to fend off two Top 10 teams in the group stage, No. 3-ranked France was an important test that the Americans failed. They were outplayed Sunday by an organized French side, losing 2-0 in Lorient, France.
As coach Jill Ellis starts to settle on a strategy for the Women’s World Cup in June, there have been plenty of tweaks in recent months, and Sunday’s showing was no different. The return of the 4-4-2 from her favored 4-3-3 formation and some players in new positions were key changes that will give Ellis plenty to mull over after a rough loss.
What seemed like the biggest storylines going into the match — Hope Solo’s suspension or the absence of starters Megan Rapinoe and Christie Rampone — ended up as non-factors in the end. The most apparent lingering message is that the USWNT has a lot of work to do before the World Cup.
Here are SBI’s five key takeaways from the USWNT vs. France:
GOALKEEPING WAS NOT AN ISSUE
The USWNT conceded two goals and lost. That is a fact. But the match was lost in the midfield, not in backup goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris’ six-yard box.
By Sunday, everyone surely knew the big storyline heading into the match: Hope Solo had been suspended by U.S. Soccer for another lapse in judgment, which meant Harris, the No. 2 backup, would probably start. Harris had just four caps with the USWNT going into Sunday and questions certainly lingered over whether the USWNT faced a goalkeeper crisis of its own making.
Those are important questions, but Harris was not the reason the USWNT lost. France’s goals would’ve been a challenge for Solo to stop just as well and Harris held her own, making at least one impressive save that kept the USWNT in the match early.
The story from Sunday is that France outplayed the Americans all over the field, technically and tactically. The USWNT’s struggle with basic possession and ball movement allowed France to overrun the Americans, and any blame laid on Harris is misdirection.
THE USWNT USED THE WRONG FULLBACKS
If the USWNT is going to return to the 4-4-2, a formation that the team saw huge success with last cycle under Pia Sundhage, then the best-fitting personnel should be used accordingly — especially at fullback.
Ellis started a fullback duo of Meghan Klingenberg and Lori Chalupny, but neither looked prepared to mind both defensive and offensive duties, which is part of the job description in the USWNT’s 4-4-2. Both Klingenberg and Chalupny were caught out of position on several chances that France should’ve converted, and both defenders did little to help build the attack.
With Kelley O’Hara and Ali Kreiger on the bench, Ellis’ choice of starting outside backs was surprising. O’Hara and Krieger are both adept at building out the back and pushing up along the flanks to provide service through the midfield, something the USWNT could’ve used help with Sunday. Crystal Dunn is also an aggressive, speedy option in either wingback position and she might’ve handled France better than Klingenberg and Chalupny did.
MORGAN AND PRESS ARE PROMISING TOGETHER
Alex Morgan figured to have some rust. After being sidelined since World Cup qualifying in October, Ellis admitted the star striker’s finishing still needs some time to return.
And yet, Morgan showed impressive flashes of creating chances and finding seams to work through in some of the brightest moments for the USWNT, even as her finishing was off. Once her striking precision is back, she will be a game-changer for the Americans.
But perhaps even more encouraging was Morgan’s partnership with Christen Press. Often overshadowed by the likes of Morgan, Sydney Leroux and Abby Wambach, Press brings something different and more technically focused to the USWNT striker stable — and it showed against France.
Press had the vision to set up her teammates and find ways to stretch France’s back line, creating some of the best combinations for the Americans all night, and she worked well with Morgan. Although a Press-Morgan two-front is a rare occurrence, it may be one Ellis should explore more.
LET LLOYD DO WHAT SHE DOES BEST, USE FLANK PLAYERS OUT WIDE
It’s a cliche, but it’s a cliche because it rings true: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Or to put it another way: If Carli Lloyd is raining down goals from the central midfield, don’t push her to the flank.
Lloyd was the top goalscorer for the USWNT in 2014, scoring 15 goals. She scored 10 goals in the team’s eight previous matches going into Sunday — and they were almost always scored from a central position. That’s why it was so surprising to see Lloyd pushed out to the left flank.
Part of why the USWNT was so jammed up in the midfield was a lack of a wide play. Everyone seemed to be playing toward the middle — a sharp contrast to France, which saw some of its best chances start from near the touchlines. The U.S. midfield could’ve used a boost from a player like Heather O’Reilly, who plays so comfortably along the right lane, or a pair of outside backs pushing high (see the second item on this list again).
Lloyd should be put where she plays her best and the players who are comfortable working the edges of the pitch should be spread out wide.
FRANCE COULD BE HOISTING THE WORLD CUP TROPHY IN JULY
As the chances of advancing into the deep stages of the tournament look less certain for the USWNT after a performance like Sunday’s, the opposite is true for France.
France performed on another level and showed more tactical awareness on the day. They played off one another in tight spaces with crisp passing, they quickly cut out USWNT threats and they looked like a cohesive group. Perhaps the disjointed, choppy play of the Americans only made the French look better by comparison, but France has been on the rise, now No. 3 in the world, for a reason.
The difference under coach Philippe Bergeroo, who replaced the controversial Bruno Bini after the last Olympics, has become clear. The French entered Sunday with some very big recent results, including a win over No. 1-ranked Germany in October and a November win over Brazil, a side that beat the USWNT the following month. Les Bleues are playing with confidence and they looked more comfortable as a group than they had when the USWNT met them last summer for a pair of friendlies that ended in a draw and loss.
With teams like Germany, Japan and Sweden looking like early contenders, it’s awfully difficult not to toss France in with that group.