Road to Women’s World Cup: USWNT warms up at SheBelieves Cup
Since 2016, the US Women’s National Team has hosted an early spring tournament called SheBelieves Cup. The purposes of this tournament for the US is to provide them with high-level competition outside of official FIFA competitions like the World Cup and the Olympics (women’s football uses open age teams at the games). The US competes in CONCACAF where it finds high ranked competition to be scarce, aside from rivals Canada.
In the first three years of the Cup’s existence high ranking teams England, Germany and France participated in the competition alongside the US. The tournament has a simple format, each team plays one another, one time and the winner is determined by who has the most points, followed by a series of tiebreakers. The US won two of the three Cups headed into the 2019 edition.
Joining the US and England for the 2019 edition were Brazil and Japan. All four teams used the competition as preparation for this June’s World Cup in France. The English captured the cup for the first time in beating Japan and Brazil while drawing with the US. The US finished second, a disappointment for sure considering they had leads in both of the first two games only to allow their opponents to pull them back to a draw.
The US opened the competition with a 2-2 draw against Japan and followed that up with another 2-2 draw against England. The competition was played over three match days with doubleheaders at three different locations across the United States. This format gave the US a massive advantage in support as they were the home team for all three matches. However, after two draws in the first two games, the US took the field against Brazil for their final game knowing England had already clinched the cup, having won earlier in the day over Japan.
SheBelieves Cup: US Formations and Lineups
The US has spent much of the last twelve months playing with a 4-3-3 in which the midfield is arranged as a single pivot with two more advanced midfielders in front of the pivot or “defensive” midfielder. That continued for most of the SheBelieves Cup but the US did at times switch to a 3-4-3. The switch was for short periods of time, especially in the game against Japan where the US started the second half in a back three and then abandoned it after about seven minutes.
The switch to back three may have been in response to the US facing two teams playing a 4-4-2 and may have been trying to create a 3v2 at the back. It may have also been because the US started every game with Crystal Dunn at left back, who is more comfortable in midfield and forward positions. The US also spent periods in more of a 4-2-3-1, opting to use a double pivot.
Whatever the formation being used at any given time was, it didn’t have much effect on how the US was looking to attack. The US took a risk-averse approach throughout all three matches. Their excellent technical ability and high level of athleticism make them a formidable counter-attacking team. They scored five goals in three games with only one coming directly off a counter attack. All three opponents aimed to deny the US ample space to counter-attack into and also mostly resisted pressing them close to their own goal in fear of being opened up.
That led the US into repeated phases of attack play with the opponent organized and sitting off them. In these moments the US were very predictable in circulating the ball around the back line, trying to find space in the wide areas or opting for simple long passes over the opponent. These phases were largely ineffective, the US best chances throughout the tournament were from winning the ball back in the opponent’s half, counter attacks and set pieces.
The US does deserve credit for two superb goals from an exchange of passes that pulled their opponent out and opened space to go forward and exploit.
The opening goal against Japan started at the right side of the centre line on a throw-in where in the US worked the ball back all the way to the left centreback before coming forward again up the right. The fifteen pass move finished with Tobin Heath, the right winger, dribbling into the penalty area and slotting a ball to the left winger, Megan Rapinoe, for a goal.
The other was the opening goal against England, an eight pass move that started on the left side, also on a throw near the centre line, that ended with a deep cross from the right back, Kelley O’Hara, that was intended for centre-forward Alex Morgan. The cross was headed away but fell to Rapinoe who fired in the opener.
These two goals were both instances of drawing the opponent out of their defensive block. A more disciplined opponent at the World Cup might see how much the US struggles to break down a packed defence and be more determined to sit in. In those situations, the US ball circulation was slow, predictable and ineffective.
At the SheBelieves Cup, the US was mostly content to allow opponents to keep the ball in deeper areas and look to control the central areas by defending in a narrow 4-3-3. The US was able to win the ball back at times high up the field, especially against Japan in the first half, but this was due more to poor attacking play from opponents than the intensity of any US pressing action. Given a relative lack of rotation from match to match in the cup (all three matches were played over just seven days) a less intensive approach was a wise decision.
The US mostly did well in organized phases of defending and should be credited for keeping a clean sheet against Brazil in the final match. They held all three opponents to three shots on target or less and their average expected goals conceded for the tournament was 0.74.
The US denied space in behind their defensive line extremely well throughout the tournament and made it difficult for opponents to build-up attacks into threatening central areas. This setup conserved energy and could allow the US many counter-attacking opportunities at the World Cup.
The US defensive shortcomings in the first two games, in which they allowed two goals in each, was more due to player selection than the defensive approach.
Player Selection for SheBelieves Cup
The US is a deeply talented team with the quality available for selection well beyond the twenty-three players they could select for the SheBelieves Cup or any other tournament. With that depth of quality is was surprising then to see US head coach, Jill Ellis, use many players out of their favoured or more effective positions.
Ellis appears determined to fit the team into a preferred formation, instead of trying to find a formation that fits her preferred team. Many coaches have been successful with both approaches. At the moment, however, Ellis appears to be making her job harder than it needs to be and fielding a team not fully able to exploit its wealth of talent.
This selection shows its shortcomings mostly when the US is defending. Crystal Dunn was selected at left back throughout the tournament despite being much more comfortable in attacking positions. Her poor positioning and tracking of runs were exposed for both Japan’s and England’s second goals, goals that sealed the dropping of points for the US.
Julie Ertz who had spent much of her career as a centreback now plays as a midfielder for both Club and Country. Her defensive qualities are still strong in midfield but her positioning often leaves her away from where a pivot player is most often needed, defending the central space in front of the centreback pairing. That she was most often paired with central midfielders, like Mallory Pugh and Rose Lavelle, that lack high defensive work rates meant the US midfield trio was often overrun and poorly positioned. This put undue stress upon back line in deeper positions.
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The US is such a dominant force that any time they do not win a tournament, especially one like the SheBelieves Cup where they are hosts, questions need to be asked. They will be among the favourites at the World Cup in France due to their winning pedigree, immense level of talent and an unmatched depth of quality. However, they will need to be more creative in breaking down disciplined defences, will need to stop switching their formation at seemingly random points to no end, and either select players in more natural positions or change the preferred selection to this point in 2019.
A win and two draws and a second place finish in a warm-up competition for a World Cup is surely not a disaster or crisis situation, the US though has been shown its frailties and still has time enough to adjust in preparation for this summer’s ultimate challenge that awaits them in France.