An effective but rather humdrum start for the favored United States into the Women’s World Cup is either one of two things:
This is manager Jill Ellis not having a solid handle on what her team is all about, especially on attack, still struggling with how to balance an aging workhorse inspiration of a forward (Abby Wambach) and a younger horse coming off injury (Alex Morgan, a.k.a. Baby Horse).
Ellis was also straining to sort out her midfield, which wasn’t much of one for two matches. Or, not one capable of competing at a world class level, at any rate.
The other way to look at this team’s tentative tippy-toe into the Women’s World Cup, a point of view dappled in a little more sunshine, looks like this: the United States was content to work its way into the tournament, confident that they came to Canada to play in seven WWC 2015 matches, not just three.
It’s certainly better to have all your attacking and defending ducks in a row before arrival into a big tournament, but working your way into a World Cup is not exactly a felony level offense in soccer.
After all, we’ve seen teams do this in plenty of men’s World Cups, haven’t we? We can find examples going back as far as you’d like.
Argentina looked anything like a world beater in 1990 group play but eventually made the final during that year’s title defense. England scored just two goals in group play at Italia ’90 but found its feet (somewhat) and made it all the way into a semifinal PK loss to eventual champion Germany
Italy started with a thud in World Cup USA in 1994 but finished at the Rose Bowl in the final. Netherlands teams in 1998 and 2010 looked a bit average in group play but advanced into the semifinals and the final of those tournaments, respectively.
And on it goes. Whether teams can develop into the best version of themselves throughout a month-long tournament isn’t in question. They can and have. What does remain in question as the United States awaits word on its second-round opposition is this: which case will eventually describe this ongoing U.S. effort? Because right now, we’re all just guessing.
The United States did win its Group, and congrats for that. And if you follow the women’s game, you know if was a bugger of a group, one that included a rising Australia, a traditionally powerful Sweden and a highly athletic Nigerian team. So credit to Ellis’ side for finishing atop a formidable foursome.
But there are so plenty of flashing warning lights here, so there are lots of U.S. supporter hands hovering near the panic button now that the elimination round lurks. While the U.S. group was certainly a toughie, a tournament format that allowed safe second-round passage for 16 of the 24 participants always provided some comforting wiggle room. That is to say, there was some pressure – but not a lot of it, if we’re honest. Not for the tournament favorite.
Before we paint ourselves into a dark corner of depression, there were elements to like about Tuesday’s 1-0 win over Nigeria, one that closed out group play amid another big backdrop of impassioned U.S. support.
The first time we saw a forward pairing of Wambach and the still-recovering Morgan wasn’t perfect, but it was better than pairings seen in the win over Australia and a scoreless draw with Sweden. Wambach and Morgan have chemistry; we can see it, even if the connection was understandably rickety at certain times in Vancouver on Tuesday.
The midfield remains a work in progress, but Ellis showed a willingness to adjust, at least, rather than continuing on the path toward boring predictability (“Abby ball,” which means a long diagonal toward Wambach … rinse … repeat). Tobin Heath didn’t help in possession the way everyone thought she could in her first WWC start. But Heath’s relationship with left back Meghan Klingenberg, who continues to attack up the wing like her life depends on it, was helpful.
With Klingenberg pushing relentlessly up the wing, Heath tilted inside to add another body in the middle, allowing Carli Lloyd or Lauren Holiday to push further forward. So even if Heath wasn’t at her best on the ball, the net out was OK as the midfield shape looked … well, let’s go with “improved.”
Ellis has a back line that provided the United States the opportunity to work the team into the tournament. Aside from some shape issues in the first half of the opener – remember those two sparkling saves from Hope Solo, which was essential in those first 45 minutes of the United States’ tournament – the back line has been rock solid. That’s thanks in large part to Julie Johnston, who won’t collect young supporter shrieks the way Morgan, Wambach and Megan Rapinoe will, but who has nonetheless been the standout of this side.
Solo has been fairly bored over the last 180 minutes. That’s a good thing, obviously.
So why the hovering hands (over that big red panic button)? Well …
Wambach scored the only goal against Nigeria, and that is surely a big push forward in confidence for a towering figure who simply has not played much in the last few months. But in that drive for confidence, there was a potentially damaging miss on yet another uncontested header.
So concern will persist for a striker who is clearly not sharp, although one who can still be effective due to her commanding aerial ability (especially as it relates to Morgan’s smart’s runs off the ball). Wambach now has missed three headers near goal in the tourney. She can blame that dastardly artificial turf if she likes, but there is a more likely explanation: she is 35 years old, and those legs probably don’t have the spring of previous days. That means she’s late on balls, or not quite able to get over the top of them.
The team remains overly predictable: too much of the offense is about long balls toward Wambach, individual creativity from Rapinoe or set-piece dependence. After that, ideas get pretty scarce.
And the overall attitude seems alarmingly tentative for a side favored to win it all. There were still too many times Tuesday without enough numbers committed to the attack, even when Nigeria went down a man. The match was begging to be put to bed, but Ellis’ team seemed indifferent to the task (or perhaps unable to perform it).
Plenty of teams have waded into tournament waters one foot first, then a leg, then up the waist, etc., rather than splashing noisily off the high dive right away.
The issue with Ellis’ team right now, if we’re honest: none of us can really say if this USWNT version is gaining speed strategically, or if Ellis’ team has already reached its maximum upside.
Editor’s note: Steve Davis writes a weekly column for World Soccer Talk. He shares his thoughts and opinions on US and MLS soccer topics every Wednesday, as well as news reports throughout the week. You can follow Steve on Twitter at @stevedavis90. Plus, read Steve’s other columns on World Soccer Talk.
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