The USWNT lost to France for the first time on Sunday. It might actually be more accurate to say that France won it’s first-ever match against the US, but that isn’t really the point. It was a difficult match to watch for anyone who enjoys watching a US team firing on all cylinders. The only way I could get through it was to do what comes naturally to me: I graded what I saw, and tried to imagine ways by which improvement might arrive. Spoiler alert: my pessimism won out in the end.
- Congratulations to France. All credit is due to a ridiculously talented French team that is technically proficient, committed to their game plan, and was all class in a huge win for their program. It didn’t hurt that these players (almost all of whom play for either PSG or Lyon) were in mid-season form, but this group is peaking at the perfect time. I would not look forward to being in their group…cough, England, cough cough.
Opponent grade: A-, only a slight deduction for not connecting on a few first-half chances.
- Jill Ellis is starting to give me heartburn. I used to joke that maybe she was trying some kind of weird, poorly-implemented Phil Jackson-type mental game with the team. Or maybe we were all just witnesses to her take on the infamous triangle, and to the ugliness of a new but potentially effective system. I’m now firmly convinced that she is just throwing whatever is handy at the wall to see if anything will stick…unless whatever is handy is a healthy, in-form Amy Rodriguez, but more on this later. Maybe her actual job is to drastically lower expectations for US women’s football. Above all else, the position of greatest concern for me is Head Coach. Because we are horrible there.
Coaching grade: F, no points for effort because I can’t see any.
- Let’s get this out of the way. Ashlyn Harris had a (pretty) great game. Goalkeeping was not the problem for the US today. Let’s remember who was in goal during our Algarve Cup defeats last spring. Harris single-handedly cleaned up several huge mistakes made by a first half back-line that looked like they’d never met each other before. That said, that first goal shouldn’t have happened, but I actually felt solid about her game performance on the whole.
Keeper grade: A-, which is more than you should expect from a keeper whose caps are still in the single digits.
- Sauerbrunn, and to a lesser extent Engen, had to spend so much time cleaning up in the midfield that both central defenders spent the majority of the game getting caught out of position, which in turn rendered France’s own finishing issues nearly irrelevant. Chalupny did a decent job tracking back and complicating the excellent pressure by Thomis, but there wasn’t much else that went right for her today. Klingenberg looked absolutely horrible while playing on the right, probably because she’s a left back. It is an eternal mystery why Krieger didn’t start, because the back line just looked so much better organized once she got on the field. Ellis’ sudden decision to make sure that more players get minutes by mucking with her starting RB seems to have come at the cost of one of the only areas of consistent competency.
Back line grade: C+, because that starting line had too much to do, and it wasn’t totally their fault.
- Oh my goodness, this midfield. If there was a single thing that was exposed in this game more than the US shortcomings in coaching, it was the glaring deficiencies in the middle of the field. Lloyd lost possession, Holiday lost possession, and Morgan Brian looked at times like she was trying to murder people’s knees when they beat her. This whole “let Carli roam” experiment is starting to seem as illogical as playing Holiday defensively; despite the natural footballing prowess of both players, Holiday is simply not thriving in the back, and Lloyd is not being optimized by playing without real responsibility. One of the US strengths in some of the team’s most impressive past wins was how much of a beast Carli Lloyd can be in a defensive position. The key word there is “position,” because she basically left Lori Chalupny on an island over on the left side for the duration of the first half. Heath was a non-factor, outside of a few questionable fouls and dribbling herself into unnecessary trouble. No one seems to know why Julie Johnston, a pretty clear heir to Shannon Boxx at defensive mid, will apparently never play in a match of consequence.
Midfield grade: D, because it was just such a mess, and no one seemed equipped to do their job.
- The rotation of our attack was just…ugh. Rodriguez coming on gave some glimpses of that great relationship with Holiday that people are always in awe of (myself included), but her arrival so late in the second half just made the whole thing bittersweet, as there wasn’t really enough time to make anything happen. There was basically no ability to finish in the box, despite the numerous looks that the US had. A lot of credit is due to a solid France back line and Bouhaddi’s gloves (which clearly had some kind of ball-attracting epoxy on them) and yeah, Morgan isn’t back in form yet. The poor finishing is a little understandable from her, but Lloyd should have had a minimum of two goals in this game. See point #7 with regard to The Penalty That Shouldn’t Have Been & Then Wasn’t. And one of our better and most technical attackers, Press, got into the box plenty of times, but the defense generally had her number.
Attack grade: C-, because the chances were there.
- I will probably never forgive Mary Abigail Wambach for that utterly whiffed penalty kick. I would have rather literally anyone else on the pitch take that, including Harris. I appreciate that they’re finally using her as a super-sub, but it was a little late, after letting Wambach soak up unnecessary minutes over these past few months (including way more than necessary in a breezy CONCACAF World Cup qualifying tournament) that could have and should have gone to any of our other forwards. So, this was really just another of those bittersweet moments that encapsulate a lot of what’s been wrong with this team for a while.
Wambach grade: no points for no participation, and I’m really mad that she missed that PK.
The issue is not that we lost; it’s the utterly formless, spastic, confused way in which we lost. An utter absence of finishing ability, players who constantly abandon their positional responsibilities and then fail to capitalize on chances at goal and an overall poor defensive display are among the many sources of concern for fans of this team. Losing isn’t that big of a deal, and losing to such an excellent French team is ok if you possess the capacity to learn from it. The problem is that France is not the first team to make us look this confused by the sport of football, though they are far and away the best team to do so. I’m not sure that the people setting tactical strategy for this team have demonstrated any ability to use this loss to improve the team going forward. It could be Ellis, it could be Gustavsson, or it could be a mad Dalek with a serious grudge against US soccer. We may never know.
If this was a “huge test” for the Americans at the start of a World Cup year, what does it mean if they failed? Where, and when, will the changes come? Will Ellis step down, acquiescing to the fact that she took a job she clearly couldn’t handle? Barring that, will USSF at least admit they they’ve been coasting on reputation and that the program has stalled completely from a technical standpoint? Didn’t US Soccer sack Tom Sermanni for less incompetence than we’ve seen on display these past few months?
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It’s hard to look on the bright side here, especially after basically stating that there is no hope and everything is doomed. I will say this: we probably do have the players to make a deep run at the World Cup. More optimistic folks than I have well-informed, more professionally-acquired opinions on this, but I don’t think anyone is convinced that the USWNT’s biggest issue is the on-field personnel. But, tactically speaking, it’s unclear what tricks we have left in the bag, if any.
With the bevy of excuse-making and backward-thinking from the staunchest supporters of what had been the most successful and highly-lauded women’s football team in the world, it’s not clear that any effective impetus for change exists. I’ve become remarkably pessimistic about the ability of the US coaching staff to fix these problems before the World Cup in June. Until this game, I tried to stay positive about our chances in Canada, but that’s going to be even more difficult going forward.
Don’t mind me; I’ll just be sighing into my hands until July…