The world champion US Women’s National team opened the SheBelieves Cup Thursday night with a hard-fought 1-0 win over England on a pleasant, sea breeze infused March evening in Tampa. An enthusiastic 13,027 paid to see it.
Here are four thoughts on the Americans victory.
England gave the US fits down the Lioness left flank.
Mark Sampson played Jordan Nobbs much deeper than her traditional midfield deployment and had her cheat over to functionally flood the American flank occupied by Tobin Heath and Kelley O’Hara. The net result of this play was that Carli Lloyd’s favored zones to receive the ball lacked space and Tobin Heath and Kelley O’Hara had limited outlet options. Tobin Heath said the pressure didn’t catch the Americans off guard, but did make things complicated, particularly in playing with tempo and transitions.
“We knew they were an aggressive and combative team and they’d try to disrupt play,” Heath said. “We were hoping they would run out of steam, but it made it difficult to get the ball to our playmakers, no question.”
Meanwhile, Demi Stokes held O’Hara’s attention while Alex Greenwood, the best player on the field for England in the first half, bombed forward with aplomb, drawing multiple fouls and finding open teammates. England couldn’t muster a shot, largely thanks to solid work on the final ball by Emily Sonnett, who played a terrific first half, and Becky Sauerbrunn, who is the best defender in the world. But the Lionesses did earn three free kicks in dangerous positions, and forced Jill Ellis and the Americans to invert Megan Klingenberg late in the first half to stop the bleeding. It was a clever plan and one that kept the game very much in the balance at the break.
Despite some shaky moments from O’Hara, the Americans were much better on the flanks in the second half, and Mark Sampson acknowledged that, removing an exhausted Greenwood for Izzy Christiansen and a more narrow shape just past an hour. Still, it was the first time an opponent had forced a US adjustment, and not vice-versa, since the early stages of the World Cup knockout phase last summer.
Tobin Heath indicated that the team was ready and waiting for this type of special challenge. “They are a really good team. These games are awesome. To be able to play these teams on home soil, in this environment is awesome. And it is a needed change of pace for us. These games show us where we’re at and where we need to go.”
Mallory Pugh was rewarded for a brilliant Olympic qualifying tournament with a start, and she showed flashes of brilliance and youth, as you’d expect.
If the CONCACAF tournament demonstrated the prodigious talent of the UCLA bound 17 year old, with her electric pace, ahead of her time technique and surprising strength wowing teammates and fans alike, Thursday’s match, against FIFA number five England, served at the very least as a brake tap on the runaway freight hype train.
Pugh continued to test pockets in the Lioness defense with her pace, she was eager to track back and defend and her runs were smartly timed, but she lost numerous one on one battles against Manchester City defender Lucy Bronze and England’s world class captain Steph Houghton. Pugh also fired a sitter of a header into the Tampa dirt, squandering one of the US’s best scoring chances of the first half.
In a tournament where six subs were permitted, it was surprising Jill Ellis kept her on the field after the halftime whistle, when the insertion of a more physical, pure number nine like Christen Press was clearly needed for the Americans to find the goal.
Jill Ellis adjusted formations and even then, it took a splendid bit of personal skill from Crystal Dunn to inch the Americans ahead. Still, it was an impressive night for the American manager.
Jill Ellis removed Lindsey Horan for Christen Press in the 63rd minute, switching to a 4-3-3. The move forced a reactive change from Mark Sampson, and England struggled to deal with the extra American forward almost immediately. When Mallory Pugh was relieved by Crystal Dunn in the 67th minute, Press was slotted inside as the pure number nine leaving the Americans with a vicious set of wide forwards in Dunn and Morgan. After a pair of chances for Press were blocked, the Americans broke through via Dunn in the 72nd minute but it took this bit of individual magic to break the deadlock.
Perhaps even more interesting, Ellis switched to a back five after earning the lead, inserting Ali Krieger and Julie Johnston in what is a textbook example of tinkering with a purpose: why not try it here, against a very good side, and see if this is how you want to see a tight game out in the heat of Brazil?
Ellis indicated that was certainly her intent. “We actually did it (switched to five in the back) in our final against Canada as well, because teams will press and pump it in there. And given the way teams will press and the desperation of the heat in Brazil, we wanted to see how it looked and whether it would help with the traffic in the box at the end.”
No matter how tremendous a celebration of the women’s sport- and women off the pitch- the SheBelieves Cup is, the specter of the pending litigation between US Soccer and its World Champion soccer team is impossible to ignore.
The reception for the World Champions, both before and during the match, was as boisterous and appreciative as many of the stops on the Victory Tour last autumn. But it was hard to watch the Americans play without thinking about the litigation with US Soccer in federal court over whether a memorandum of understanding functions as a collective bargaining agreement.
On the one hand, US Soccer is framing the “She Believes” competition as a celebration of not just women’s soccer and the growth of the sport both in the United States and around the globe, but also as a celebration and recognition of women’s accomplishments in all walks of life, from the classroom to the boardroom and beyond. A press release before Thursday’s match noted that the overarching purpose of the tournament was to further celebrate US Soccer’s commitment to the growth of the women’s game. It’s hard to juxtapose and reconcile that vision of growth when you are in court with the very women who move the needle.
Neil W. Blackmon is co-founder of The Yanks Are Coming. Reach him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @nwblackmon.