SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The U.S. Women’s National Team heads to France for the 2019 Women’s World Cup with a target on its back, but the defending champions have embraced their role as favorites, even in the face of improved play by the rising powers in women’s soccer, including the host nation.
It won’t just be the top contenders the U.S. will find challenging, as the team found out Sunday at Levi’s Stadium during the first of three Send-Off Series tuneup games before heading across the Atlantic. South Africa, which will make its World Cup debut next month, bunkered defensively and made it very difficult for the USWNT to find scoring chances.
The Americans eventually broke through and cruised to a 3-0 win — Samantha Mewis scored a brace and Carli Lloyd added a late goal — but it was worrisome to see the team, which expects to lift the World Cup trophy in France, struggling to find its offensive verve with less than a month to go before Group F play begins June 11.
“We can learn from the experiences. It’s what teams pose, and you get more pictures of situations,” head coach Jill Ellis shared at her postgame press conference. “This team sat in on us and was very athletic. I don’t care what level you’re at, that’s challenging to break down teams that sit low and get lots of numbers in the box. Those are the takeaways in terms of learning moments, and they are the benefits of these types of games.”
The USWNT will face Thailand in its World Cup opener, followed by group stage games against Chile and Sweden. The three team lineup features progressively more challenging opponents, which should give the U.S. a ramp up of momentum heading into the knockout round of the tournament.
“This was a good test before the World Cup, a good tuneup,” Kelley O’Hara said. “More than likely we are going to face a team like this at the World Cup, so it’s good to get in the practice of breaking down an opponent. I think we could have been a bit better today, but that’s why we have these friendlies to work on things. Yeah, we will take away some lessons from this game.”
The third group stage game brings up a familiar foe in Sweden, who were responsible for knocking out the USWNT in the last major women’s championship: the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil. Sweden triumphed on penalty kicks against the U.S. and went on the win the silver medal in that tournament, as the U.S. was bounced earlier than it had ever been before. For Ellis, it is a catastrophe that still haunts her, but it also provides her motivation in correcting the errors of that experience.
“You have to be prepared for that,” Ellis said. “When we came out of the Olympics in 2016 that was a memory that is burned in my head. Gone are the days where the lower, lower teams were there; now it’s quality teams, World Cup caliber teams. The game has just exponentially tactically evolved, even in five years. The things that teams throw out you now, the things you have to adapt to, the things that you see, I would say were not there five years ago. Coaching, the level of play, everything has accelerated.
“So when Sweden did it to us in the Olympics, it left a mark on me, in terms of we’ve got to make sure we have players that can break teams down, because when there is no space behind, you have to problem solve in different ways, whether that’s to draw teams out or find spaces where they aren’t or use your width. There’s are a lot of different elements when teams bunker.”
The elite teams in international soccer will always come up against lower ranked opponents that will use such tactics, so Ellis was pleased to face a South Africa showing the same tactics. She could see the game develop in the first half as a one-sided encounter, and the lack of scoring opportunities was frustrating for the players. Mewis’ first half goal took some of the pressure off the team, and it provided a starting point for a halftime talk meant to solve the South Africa defensive riddle.
“In the first half, we wanted to be more connected and make sure we were reading off of each other really well, and being able to go in at halftime and make those adjustments and say what we needed to do differently,” Mewis said. “The coaches gave us information and we talked to each other and we were able to solve some things. In the World Cup, it is going to be very important to make such adjustments on the fly.”
The second half was much better from the U.S., as the team recognized that South Africa posed little danger on counterattacks, and the players felt more comfortable compressing the field of play into the attacking third. The chances started to come with more frequency, and it was a matter not of if, but when the Americans would score again.
“We’ll grow from this and try to create more chances,” Mewis said. “This team usually creates a ton of chances, so it was actually a really important challenge for us to face something like that, and now we can go back and lock at the film and learn how we can be more like ourselves and create more chances.”
The USWNT will look to its second Send-Off series game against New Zealand in St. Louis as another opportunity to increase its offensive efficiency against a weaker opponent, something Ellis believes is a vital benefit in the lead up to the World Cup.
“There were a lot of good takeaways, and that’s why we are playing these games,” Ellis said. “We got in a lot of different players in today, and that’s good to get many pictures as we look to get coverage in many positions.”
Ratcheting up intensity
There is always a balancing act when it comes to the tune up games ahead of a major tournament, for players and for coaches. No one wants to get injured before the real games begin, but everyone recognizes that overthinking situations in the moment, hesitating instead of relying on instincts, can spell disaster when it comes to picking up injuries.
Against South Africa, Julie Ertz took an inadvertent knock to the face and had to play most of the first half with gauze hanging out of her mouth, stemming the flow of blood from a split lip. She was attended to at halftime and continued to play for 90 minutes, but it was a small scare for a player that will be vital to the USWNT’s success in France.
For Ellis, the injury was a small concern, but Ertz’s response was in no way surprising. The coach is used to managing a hypercompetitive group of players, no matter the quality of the opponent or the significance of the game, and what she say of her team at Levi’s Stadium was par for the course in their everyday practice sessions.
“When you look at the Send-off games, the players know to be smart,” Ellis said. “Our trainings are incredibly intense, there’s a lot of body parts flying around, and there’s a high level of intensity, but it’s making sure we are smart. It’s protecting our own within our environment. When you go out against an opponent, it’s a balance because you can’t play within yourself because you could potentially get hurt if you choose to pull out of a tackle. It is that balance, but the players have the experience to know when to make those decisions.”
The tone of trainings has been more congenial since Ellis named her 23 player roster for the World Cup, and the players have definitely rallied around the cause of bringing home another title, but there will still be intensity in the scrimmages and in the tuneup games, especially with only 11 players taking the field at a given time.
“Everyone was fighting for a spot to get into the 23, so at times it can be nerve wracking and stressful,” O’Hara said. “Now we can get together and gel and get that chemistry so that we will be 100% ready for June and July.”
The MVP of the last World Cup Final, Carli Lloyd, is expected to be an impact player off the bench for the USWNT in France. A veteran of three previous World Cups, she has a singular focus on making what will likely be her last run her best one. And if that has to be as a late game substitute, she has learned what it takes to make a difference, even as she champs at the bit awaiting her opportunity.
“Yeah, I get a little bit antsy out there,” Lloyd said. “I am taking note of what’s going on, the game flow, but then going out there and controlling what I can control. I’ve been working so, so hard every single day these last three or four years on my finishing, and it’s all coming together. I may get one chance up there, and it is my job to put it away.”
Her late goal against South Africa put a bow on what was a good performance by the USWNT. There will certainly be room for improvement from everyone, and the next chance comes in St. Louis.
“My focus is now on New Zealand, and nothing past that,” Lloyd said. “It’s going to be a good game for us to work on the things we’ve been working on so we can keep improving.”
Versatility on field
Another goal Ellis had following the 2016 Olympics debacle is creating a lineup that can adapt to any situation on the field, be it a stubborn opponent or one that chooses to stand toe to toe with her squad. In recent years, that has involved grooming players to take on positions they may not have excelled at earlier in their careers.
The current first-choice outside defenders are a perfect example, as O’Hara, once a goal-scoring threat in her early years with the national team, is now fully deputized at right back. On the left side, Crystal Dunn featured for the USWNT against South Africa, building on her recent evolution from winger to defender. Dunn has 24 international goals to her credit, and she is still expected to get involved on offense in the team’s current tactics.
“Dunny has had an accelerated learning curve,” Ellis said. “In 2018 was her first time playing it for us at that level. In the growth and the sophistication, the subtleties and nuances of learning that position, she’s made great strides, and I recognize that she wants to continue to grow in that position. Having a player comfortable in taking on opponents and still understanding her accountability to defend is good. The way we play, she has to be able to do that, and she’s done really well.”
The transition for O’Hara began much earlier, and she is now established as a starting right back. After ankle surgery last October, and a setback earlier this year, there were concerns she wouldn’t be at full strength ahead of the World Cup, but she dispelled those rumors after the South Africa game, proclaiming her progress on track. The former Hermann Trophy winner for her exploits as a goal-scorer at Stanford credits that experience for helping her make the move to defender. She sees a similar commitment from everyone on the team to recognize one another’s responsibilities on the field.
“I love how versatile we are,” O’Hara said. “We have so many players on the field that can play so many different positions. It’s not about playing just one position, as we will find ourselves in multiple different spots on the field. This is the first team we’ve had that is capable of playing with any player at any position because we understand all the roles, offensively and defensively. We are threat at all positions on the field.”
Versatility also comes in the way some players have adopted other roles within the team. Lloyd, who is the senior member of the team by more than two years, has more caps and more goals than any other active USWNT player, but she is now the team’s official super-sub. At 36 years old, Lloyd could have quietly rode into the sunset with the national team, but that is not her style. Last month she scored two goals against Belgium in a friendly, and in October last year netted a hat trick in the Concacaf Championships. There is no quit in the New Jersey native.
“Yeah, it’s a different phase in my career, and there’s loads more ways I can continue to get better,” Lloyd said. “It’s believing in yourself. If you don’t, you are not going to accomplish anything.”
With 108 international goals following her late strike against South Africa, Lloyd sits alone at number 4 all-time for the USA. She might be 22 goals behind the great Kristine Lilly for the third spot on the list, but no one doubts she will give it her all to reach the top three. It is why Ellis made sure to include Lloyd on the 23 player World Cup roster, and not simply because of her veteran leadership.
“Yes, she can help us off the field, but it’s to score goals, whatever the minutes and whether she starting or not starting,” Ellis said. “It’s about being a game changer. We call our reserves game changers for that very reason. Carli lives for those moments. There’s a trust, there’s a confidence, there’s an intensity about her, and today it was a perfect reflection of what she can do, and the damage she can do, when she comes into games.”
Lloyd, serious as always following the 3-0 win against South Africa, sees little difference in her approach to the game now as compared to earlier in her career. And however she gets her minutes in France, she is going to give it her all for the USWNT, like she has always done before.
“Nothing’s really changed since 2005,” Lloyd said. “When I first got on this team, I made a choice to be 100% in 100% of the time. That means grinding every single day, persevering through challenging situations, whatever is thrown at me, I’m going to be ready to tackle it head on, and do everything I can to be the best.
“Ultimately, if I am at my best, I can help the team, and that’s all I really want to do. I just have a huge addiction to winning, and winning big championships.”