TAMPA, Fla. — The United States women’s national team performance in the SheBelieves Cup, which concluded Tuesday, raised concerns the reigning world champs may not be at the level needed three months before the 2019 World Cup in France.
The four-team tournament exposed weaknesses. U.S. coach Jill Ellis continued tinkering with the lineup, often out of necessity due to various injuries (See: Lindsey Horan, Alyssa Naeher, Rose Lavelle). The first two games ended in 2-2 draws with England and Japan. The final game, a 1-0 victory that showed some improvement, came against a Brazil team that finished last with no wins. England won it all. The U.S. took second.
“I’m very proud of the shutout, and I’m proud of the performance. Moving forward, we have to be better, though,” said U.S. goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, who impressed with three saves to maintain the only clean sheet of the tournament against Brazil. “We needed to be better in the first two games. We were giving up goals. We were giving up chances.”
Harris, never one to shy away from blunt truths, said she isn’t worried because it’s all part of building to the World Cup.
“It is more important for us to get exposed so we can learn from it and build, than skate through all these tournaments and never have any issues and then feel it in the World Cup,” she said. “So, this is so important for us. We’re taking so much away from this tournament. Are we pissed that we weren’t standing up on that podium? Hell yea, we’re pissed. But, we took a lot of good and bad things away from this tournament and we’re going to be better off come time in France than we would’ve been if we won this thing.”
Ellis said the team is set “in terms of what we want to do,” despite some of the lineup movement seen during the tournament. That was mostly due to injury, she said.
“Yes, you have a Plan A, but at certain times during this tournament you have to have a Plan B because of Horan’s not there or Rose is out. So we have to look at these things,” Ellis said. “I think we’re very close in terms of the personnel we want. The fine-tuning sort of things, I mean — I think people kind of forget that this was Julie Johnson [Ertz]’s first time playing in the backline in 2015, and she did OK.”
Ellis paused and cracked a smile as reporters laughed because Ertz starred in the 2015 World Cup. She then continued, “So, I’ve got smart players. I’m not worried about them being in different positions. Now it’s about, can we fine-tune the chemistry and the linking and that?”
And that hinges on players being healthy.
“Becky [Sauerbrunn is] back, she’s back in. But Alyssa’s not in goal,” Ellis said. “I actually think we’ve had 22 different back lineups because the injuries. I’ve said this from Day 1: Part of winning the World Cup is making sure you have depth when you need it, and then making sure you have a Plan B.”
When asked whether the public perception that experimenting with the lineup so close to the World Cup is worrisome also concerns the players, Harris said, “No.”
“I mean, we have such a deep roster. We have incredible players, incredible talent, and at any given moment, whatever the team needs, the players are ready and capable of stepping in and doing their jobs,” Harris said. “Rose couldn’t go and Sam stepped in, and she did her job. I needed to fill the role as the goalkeeper, and I did it seamlessly. And that’s a testament to how good this team actually is. … It’s not a dropoff because we don’t have our starting XI. That doesn’t exist here.”
All three U.S. goalkeepers played 90 minutes during the SheBelieves Cup. Naeher and Adrianna Franch each conceded two goals.
Ellis called Harris’ performance “a massive boost.”
“My decision was to play our core players as many minutes as possible. Other teams rotated. I felt having those minutes, building that chemistry was important. So, we were a bit leggy at the end,” Ellis said. “That’s when you need your goalkeeper to make saves, and so for Ashlyn to come up — come up big — I think she’d agree that it’s expected, and I think it’s a massive boost to have someone back there when you’re under the gun a little bit, in terms of defending, to be able to pull off those big saves.”
One of those saves came against Orlando Pride teammate Marta. Harris saved a curving free kick from the Brazilian superstar late in the game, and she doesn’t plan on letting Marta forget that when they return to club training.
“I train with Marta every single day, and I still have no idea what she’s going to throw at me. She’s one of those players — anything can happen at any given moment,” Harris said. “So I can’t wait to rub it in when I see her tomorrow.
“Oh, there’s banter all the time. She gets so riled up.”
The game Harris got to play at Raymond James Stadium also came in front of family, friends and plenty of fans screaming and cheering for the Florida native who plays club ball 87 miles down I-4.
And she heard them loud and clear.
“I always hear them. I hear them cheering my name behind me. It feels so good cause I work my ass off every single day to have moments like this,” Harris said. “And to know I have the city, the state, this country behind me, it means a lot — a lot more than people think.”