Mallory Pugh was one of the few bright spots for the USA, scoring its lone goal. (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
Saturday’s 3-1 loss to France certainly wasn’t the end of the world or the Women’s World Cup for the U.S. women’s national side, but the result should serve as a wake-up call for what lies ahead this June and July.
After all, the match was only a friendly and it really doesn’t count except for the FIFA ranking, players’ confidence and perhaps some bragging rights.
Saying that, France’s confidence must be sky-high after its encompassing performance at Stade Océane in Le Havre, the U.S.’s down.
Before going on, let’s put this match into proper context. The French players are in the midst of their league season. The Americans haven’t played regularly since October and began training camp a couple of weeks ago.
Also, the USA was missing four veteran starters, difference-makers and game-changers, in the likes of Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath, Kelley O’Hara and Julie Ertz, all sidelined with either injuries or being sick. According to the TV commentators they should be healthy to return come Tuesday when the Americans meet Spain.
No excuses there, but just the facts and some context as the USA had its 28-game unbeaten streak snapped.
A few quick comments:
It looked like a USA game
Yes, it did. France looked like an American team that usually dominates its foes. There were few opportunities for the visitors and the French had their way.
No depth charges
Yeah, that is very scary. The players inserted in place of the aforementioned quarter did not make names for themselves. In fact, some struggled. The USA has an extremely talented Starting XI, quite possibly the best in the world. But anyone who understands world championship soccer — women, men or youth — will tell you no team wins a title without contributions with many players, if not the entire squad.
Emily Fox, who started at left back in place of Crystal Dunn (who was moved to the right wing at midfield for this match), was beaten on the right flank for the first of Kadidiatou Diani’s two goals in the ninth minute. She did not look like she had the speed in that situation. That is something that head coach Jill Ellis will have to figure out. Saying that, Tierna Davidson, the first pick of the recent National Women’s Soccer League college draft who normally is a center back, looked comfortable as a substitute at left back. Perhaps she is the answer for depth at that position.
Speaking of left backs, Dunn, who earlier this week was named as the best player at that position as part of the Concacaf Best XI female team of 2018, was a non-factor. Whether it was lack of quality passes or chances, Dunn never got an opportunity to strut her stuff, which can be deadly. Interesting that Ellis used the Rockville Centre, N.Y. native at midfield after deploying her at left back for a good portion of last year, especially during the Concacaf Women’s Championships. Just wonder if the North Carolina Courage player will be moved around or return to left back.
Like it or not, every time she gives up a goal, many soccer observers and fans will think, “How Hope Solo would have done on that shot?” Naeher was called on way too many times to make saves. You can’t do that do any goalkeeper, especially one who guards the goal for the Red, White and Blue. The first goal was not her fault. Diani’s second goal, a magnificent and daring chip shot from a difficult angle on the right side, was a moment of brilliance. On France’s third goal, which was started thanks to a USA giveaway at midfield had enough moving parts for blame. Naeher gets some on this play, as Marie-Antoinette Katoto raced between two U.S. defenders — Abby Dahlkemper and Becky Sauerbrunn — it looked like she came out just a bit too early and Katoto rounded her for the score in the 78th minute.
Sometimes we forget to give the opponents their due. The French, third-ranked in the world, are a pretty damn good side. They are talented up and down the lineup. They displayed good movement, ball and players, and are and will continue to be a force to be reckoned with.
A saving grace (and it wasn’t save)
It was a goal. Mallory Pugh tallied in the 91st minute to avert a shutout for the U.S. and was one of the few bright spots for the visitors.
A few other thoughts
Christen Press had the best attacking moments for the Americans, but I am not certain she is the answer up front.
Striker Alex Morgan, the Concacaf female player of the year, hardly got any service, at least not quality.
The USA had major problems bringing the ball out of the back thanks to the French press (not to be confused with a French press for coffee).
I expected more of Lindsey Horan. Like it or not, when you the NWSL MVP, you have to step it up at the international level.
After stating all of that, I am more concerned how the USA will look when push comes to shove in June and July, when the game will really count when the team returns to France to defend its world championship.
It will be Ellis’ charge to get that squad on an upward trajectory to reach its peak at the right time, not unlike what the Americans accomplished at Canada 2015.
Ellis and the team have nine more games to get its act together before the real curtain is raised. Given Ellis’ nature and coaching ability, that should be more than enough time.
As for responding to this defeat, we won’t have to wait too long as the Americans look to rebound at Spain Tuesday.