U.S. Women’s National Team head coach Jill Ellis said in the days leading up to the Tournament of Nations that her team would look to these games as preparation for the upcoming World Cup Qualifiers.
The USWNT certainly started that preparation off with a bang Thursday night.
Playing in front of a sold out crowd of 18,467 in Kansas City, the U.S. women put on quite the offensive display in their 4-2 defeat of Japan.
“This game is huge for us starting off the Tournament of Nations, because we do want to win our own tournament,” said forward Alex Morgan. “We did win SheBelieves earlier this year. I don’t feel like [SheBelieves] was our greatest performance, but I feel like we have continued to grow throughout these past couple months.
“Obviously leading into qualifiers that’s kind of the most important thing for us. So if we can come out of this tournament on a high note, and it starts with tonight, that’s going to be very important. I think we’re all pretty happy with this performance.”
“Good way to start this little tournament. Put a lot of goals up,” said midfielder Megan Rapinoe.
“I feel like it’s starting to come together a little bit more,” the midfielder continued. “Still things in the attack, just being a bit more patient, picking and choosing a little bit more possession versus trying to go every time. I think we kind of get too excited and go. We’re really good in transition, which sometimes can be a fault of ours, too, because we want to go every time.”
Her thoughts about Alex Morgan’s performance?
“Not bad. I wish I could score a hat trick. That would be awesome,” Rapinoe joked. “Every time I do something awesome, Alex goes and scores three.”
“For me it’s just continuing to perform and to continue to get on the scoreboard,” Morgan added. “I feel like I’m doing what (Ellis) is asking of me, and I feel really good in my performance tonight and my performance this last six months or a year.”
The biggest questions yet to answer leading into next year’s World Cup are on the defensive side of things. Centerback and USWNT veteran Becky Sauerbrunn did not make an appearance despite being cleared to play as she recovers from injury, which forced the more inexperienced duo of 19-year-old Tierna Davidson and 25-year-old Abby Dahlkemper into the middle of the back line with a combined 27 caps between the two of them.
The defensive pairing seemed to struggle to contain the Japanese attack at times throughout the game. Japanese forwards found space up the middle, which ultimately led to their first goal from Mina Tanaka.
Left back has also been a struggle at times for the USWNT. The lack of depth at the position has forced Ellis to turn to forward Crystal Dunn as a wing back of sorts.
“Crystal’s been great. We started playing her there in SheBelieves,” said Ellis. “Right now it’s not a particularly deep role for us. Both goals in the first half, it was Crystal, when we rotate her up high, which is what we want to do in our buildup, good things happen.
“She has free license to get as high as possible. We balance a bit with a midfielder. Her and Megan are starting to get a fantastic relationship. She’s a player that can serve a ball left-footed.”
“I think we’re kind of both figuring out our tendencies, where we want to be, how we like it,” Rapinoe said. “Obviously defending she’ll worry about that part, but coming out of the attack I want her to get as high as possible and go at people one v. one. She’s one of the best one v. one players on our team.
“I feel like any time she can get high and wide, go at players, and be in the attack, I’m all for that. As we progress, we’ll need to become a little bit more nuanced. We’ve only had a few games together. But I think we can be pretty dangerous with our different characteristics on the wing.”
Dunn certainly adds to the attacking dynamic out of the left back spot, but her tendency to press high up the field did leave the back exposed at times, although she was able to make up for most mistakes and track back due to her excellent pace.
“I actually thought defensively she worked very, very hard tonight,” Ellis continued. “[Japan] is a team that gives you a lot to deal with. There’s a lot of movement in that team. A lot to track. Obviously some things to improve upon in terms of the goals we gave up, but I think Crystal had a very good performance tonight.”
Rapinoe echoed Ellis’ statements about defensive improvements.
“Obviously we don’t want to let any in, so we’ll look at that and try to resolve that, but I think it was pretty good for the first game,” Rapinoe said.
“Overall a good performance and really good goals. I think we feel good and excited going into the next game in Hartford.”
The USWNT next faces Australia at 7 p.m. ET on Sunday. The Matildas—the last team to beat the USWNT in a 1-0 game at last year’s Tournament of Nations—won last year’s inaugural.
“We don’t lose that often, so we generally remember who we lose to,” Rapinoe said. “They’re a very good squad. For sure a contender heading into France next year. Whenever we get a chance to learn a little more about them and try to have a good performance against them I think we take full advantage of that.”