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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

The USWNT is put out of its misery


Carli Lloyd is justifiably unhappy.
Photo: Getty Images

The U.S. wouldn’t have had much argument if they’d eaten it against the Dutch. And if Lieke Martens had hit the penalty that Jessie Fleming did today, instead of her tribute to English penalty taking, they probably would have. They can feel a little more hard done by losing this game to Canada, giving up only one shot on target (said penalty). That doesn’t mean it was a total smash-and-grab by the Canadians, as the U.S. didn’t manage its first shot on target until an hour in, and really only came up with about three really dangerous chances. At the end, the USWNT didn’t deserve to play for the gold given their overall tournament, and this was just the particular sword that fell.

The U.S. won one game out of five. They scored eight goals over five games, and in only two of them. And in the three games they didn’t score, it didn’t really take some heroic goalkeeping performance or Alamo-like rearguard action to keep them out. They varied between toothless and insipid for a lot of matches, which is a pretty gross combination.

The adjectives we heard or read throughout the run were “off,” or “out of sync,” or “not ourselves.” And again, it was a different lead-in to this Olympics than most for the U.S. More players than ever had been playing in Europe thanks to the pandemic, leading to a couple to be playing year-round or coming off injury from that (Tobin Heath would be the biggest example). An undervalued advantage the U.S. has had in summer tournaments in the past is that they come basically right at the height of fitness for them, in the middle of the NWSL season where most of their competition is coming off the end of a European season.

It’s also an extremely packed tournament, as this was the fifth game in 13 days. Combined with the steambath climate of Japan in the summer, and the collective age of this team, it was always unlikely that they would look like themselves. At least not in every game. What’s disappointing is that they didn’t look like themselves in any game, other than maybe the batting practice that was New Zealand.

The first half was much the same story we’ve seen from the USWNT this tournament, a complete inability to deal with the same high press they’re accustomed to smothering their opponents with. After a promising opening 10 minutes or so, the U.S. fell back into the muck they hadn’t been able to escape all tournament. And once again, manager Vlatko Andonovski’s choices to deal with that press were curious.

Starting Lynn Williams and Heath was the right call, as their greater mobility and willingness to interchange positions all over the field gave the U.S. more options, just as it had done against the Dutch. But as Canada exerted more pressure on the U.S. defense when they had the ball, Lindsey Horan and Rose Lavelle split more and more wide from the center of midfield. This would be fine if the U.S. was intent on hitting direct balls out to them or to Heath and Williiams farther up the field. But other than once in a while, they didn’t. They kept trying to funnel balls to Julie Ertz, who didn’t have any teammate within 15 or 20 yards of her. Given the diamond shape of Canada’s midfield, it’s a mystery why after the first 10 minutes the U.S. didn’t push Crystal Dunn and Kelley O’Hara farther up the field to go more direct. Dunn is one of the NWSL’s most dynamic wingers playing as a fullback for the national team. Why not use that?

The second half was a much bigger improvement, and they kept Canada pinned in their own half, partially thanks to Dunn and O’Hara getting up the field. But Canada only seemed too happy to let them have the ball wide and send the crosses back to whence they came. The U.S. didn’t have any other ideas. The only times they looked to unlock Canada through the middle was after Carli Lloyd came on and linked up with Heath. And there wasn’t enough of that.

And Andonovski can’t escape blame for how off color the team looked all tournament. While the prep was different and the obstacles clear, it’s his job to build cohesion out of that. To have a plan for what was thrown at them. The U.S. looked like they hadn’t played together before and almost incredulous that anyone would get up in their face defensively.

The big theme coming out of this will be whether it’s time to start turning this team over. Lloyd is 40. Rapinoe is 36, and other than her winning penalty against Holland, wasn’t very good. Sauerbrunn is 36. Many others are over 30. But then two years ago after the World Cup we were asking some of the same questions about all of them. And Tierna Davidson, the one real youth on the team at 22, looked the most ropey under pressure and gave away the penalty against Canada out of nothing. But she’ll be better for the experience.

A massive turnover isn’t needed, or likely. Maybe it’s time for Lloyd and Rapinoe to move aside, and other stalwarts to move into more of a squad role. But the World Cup is only two years away,

And there’s a question of turning the team over to who, exactly? Of players to get significant minutes, only Davidson and Lavelle were under 27. The Mewis sisters, Horan, and Lavelle are clearly what the next team should be built around, but fully going to the next generation off of these Games seems a bridge too far. Especially as really none of them got any experience in this tournament. Whoever the U.S. turn to for the 2023 World Cup, they clearly need to be able to play under a high press better than this squad managed.

It never looked good, and it was never pleasant watching, and in that sense maybe it’s better that it’s over.

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