As a fireplace alarm echoed all through Eden Park on Tuesday night time and the public-address system requested everybody to evacuate, many of the crowd of 42,000 stayed of their seats in confusion. It turned out to be a false alarm, and virtually too becoming a metaphor for an evening to overlook for the USA.
A scoreless draw with Portugal secured the defending champions a spot within the knockout rounds. That was broadly anticipated by many of the world previous to the event. How the US acquired there, nevertheless, could possibly be generously described as a grind.
One thing clearly wants to alter for the US. The Individuals possess the person expertise to carry out much better than they’ve to this point. Among the many mandatory adjustments is the comparatively easy: be extra scientific in entrance of objective. Dig into how these probabilities shall be created although, and issues get extra difficult.
Strain early and constantly
Previous to Vlatko Andonovski’s appointment as head coach in 2019, USA’s id had been considered one of relentless, early excessive stress that made opponents uncomfortable near their very own objective. USA tried that within the opening couple of minutes towards Portugal on Tuesday with some success. It took 25 seconds for Rose Lavelle and Lynn Williams – Andonovski’s adjustments for the Portugal match – to mix on the proper aspect and ship in a cross. USA saved their line of confrontation excessive and locked Portugal in deep.
The pattern continued. Seven minutes in, Portugal tried to play a brief objective kick and construct out from the again. Sophia Smith and Alex Morgan stepped into the 18-yard field to steal the ball and Portugal scrambled. Portugal regained the ball as your complete United States crew stepped excessive, and Ana Borges hurriedly cleared beneath stress from the Individuals. Naomi Girma received a 50-50 ball properly into Portugal’s half.
After that, the press dropped off. Credit score to Portugal, after all, for fixing that stress. However the defending champions shared blame for the state of affairs: their press as soon as once more appeared out of sync.
Within the final 16 the US face Sweden, a crew greater than able to matching the Individuals’ physicality. If USA are to have any success, they should come out of the gate aggressively and never let off the stress. Then – hopefully – comes the ending to verify they convert on that stress. We’ll get to that.
Midfielders should ask for the ball
Thirty minutes into the Portugal match, Smith acquired a move on the left touchline from Crystal Dunn. The Dunn-Smith mixture was by far the commonest passing sequence of the night time for USA, making a predictable swing of the ball up the left that Portugal shut down with ease.
However this second was illustrative of the foundation of the problem. As an alternative of attempting to show her defender and run in behind, as Smith tried to do a number of occasions within the first half, the ahead put her foot on the ball to search for teammates. All she discovered was 4 crimson shirts in a diamond and no teammates checking into area. Smith’s solely possibility was to play the ball again to Dunn.
The US managed to resolve the stress and swing the ball to Williams on the opposite aspect of the pitch, however the glacial motion made them predictable. Portugal’s 4-4-2 diamond owned the midfield, and so they made extra presents to obtain the ball from teammates than the USA – particularly within the center third, per Fifa’s knowledge. The dearth of motion is a symptom of the USA’s disconnect between gamers who had not performed collectively as a beginning XI earlier than this event.
Create extra width
Megan Rapinoe has been outspoken over the previous week in regards to the crew’s lack of width in assault. In her heyday, Rapinoe would have been the proper answer to the issue, however on the age of 38 Rapinoe is getting used as a super-sub by Andonovski. The necessity for extra width stays, nevertheless.
Implicit to that issue is something that few have discussed: as talented as the USA forwards are, there is significant redundancy. Smith, Williams and Trinity Rodman can play on the wing, but they are better as central forwards. Smith and Rodman mostly play in the No 9 role for their clubs. Morgan, who is Andonovski’s choice as central striker, only plays there.
The risks of USA’s 4-3-3 shoehorning Smith and Rodman into wide roles have been exposed at this tournament. Smith wants to cut inside on the dribble – which is how she thrived as the 2022 National Women’s Soccer League MVP – and that means less service for Morgan. A logical solution is to switch to two strikers, and the most radical (but still quite logical) way to get there is a 3-5-2.
The pragmatic Andonovski is unlikely to go in that direction, but it could be a necessary gamble. Alana Cook could join Julie Ertz and Girma at center-back, allowing Emily Fox and Dunn to be more involved in the attack as wing-backs. A fired-up Kelley O’Hara is also an option at wing-back, as is Sofia Huerta, whose pinpoint crossing would supply a Smith-Morgan combination up front with early balls in behind. The three center-backs should provide the necessary defensive cover for Huerta to be more attack-minded. And the 3-5-2 would give USA more cover in midfield, where they’ve been outnumbered the past two games.
Move Julie Ertz
The more realistic option for Andonovski is to utilize Ertz the way she was supposed to when she announced her return in March, as the answer to the team’s lack of bite in midfield. This looks like the best move on paper, but it also disrupts the one thing that has gone well for USA thus far at this World Cup, which is the Ertz-Girma pairing at center-back. Ertz and Girma had not played a competitive match together before the tournament, but they have not looked out of sync the way the rest of the squad has.
Move Ertz to the holding midfield role and stick with the 4-3-3, and Andonovski has the flexibility to let Lindsey Horan play higher up next to the No 10. This would have been the perfect way to unlock the potential of Lavelle, but she is suspended for the Sweden game. Savannah DeMelo started the first two games in the No 10 role, but Ashley Sanchez had previously been developed as the like-for-like swap in Lavelle’s extended spring absence due to injury.
This scenario moves Ertz up as a solution, but potentially calls upon two players – Sanchez and Cook – who did not play a single minute in the group stage. Implicit in Andonovski’s lack of substitutions in the Netherlands game is a lack of trust in his reserves.
Dunn is an option there, too, given that she plays as an attacking midfielder for the Portland Thorns, but it is a position she is unfamiliar with for the US. Then again, we have been told ad nauseam about how this lineup hasn’t played together, and Dunn is plenty capable. She could serve as the box-to-box midfielder to free up Horan to play the No 10 role. Then the question becomes whether Andi Sullivan remains as the holding midfielder or Ertz steps in.
Learn how to finish
Nothing about this is simple, but in a way, it is the most straightforward fix. The issues across the team inform the idea that USA’s problems are systemic. However, the Americans have had opportunities, and the finishing has often been wasteful.
The problem seemed harmless enough in the opener against Vietnam, when a 3-0 victory for the US sparked optimism (the Netherlands’ 7-0 victory over the Vietnamese on Tuesday put that optimism into perspective). The final count for USA in that opener was 28 shots, seven on target, three goals. Against the Netherlands it was 18, three and one; against Portugal, 15, five and 0.
Step one is to improve play between the midfield and forwards. No matter who plays on that frontline, and no matter if it remains a three-front or shifts more drastically, it’s on the individuals to then bury the opportunities. In the 26th minute against Portugal, Williams had a shot saved from six-yards out, then got a second opportunity from the same spot but skied it over the bar. Morgan tied Williams with a team-high six shots on Tuesday, but five were off target and one was blocked.
Whoever starts up front on Sunday will shoulder the pressure of scoring. It may take an exceptional individual performance to drag the team past Sweden and into the quarter-finals.