The USWNT have a daring attack-first style, and though defence may be a anxiety, they’re still among the favourites.
Coach Ellis finally decided on a 4-3-3 formation constructed around a number of mainstays: goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher (who held off Ashlyn Harris for the starting job), the central defence pairing of Abby Dahlkemper and Becky Sauerbrunn, Lindsey Horan and Julie Ertz in the midfield and Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan up front. The result? A 28-game unbeaten run that ended only in January.
A thrilling attack-first style organized by Rapinoe, Morgan, Tobin Heath, Mallory Pugh, Christen Press and old warhorse Carli Lloyd suggests the Americans will have no problem scoring goals in France. Whether they can keep their opponents from returning the favour often enough is the far more pressing issue. They opened the calendar year with a patchy record of two wins, two draws and one loss, including back-to-back games with multiple goals conceded for the first time since 2011. Naeher, always somewhat unpredictable for her country, has been done no favours by a back line thin on depth and experience: starting right-back Kelley O’Hara has been troubled by injury and left-back Crystal Dunn is playing out of her natural forward position.
Having noted the above reservations, Ellis’s squad still enters the tournament as favourites on merit, but matching the 540 minutes without conceding a goal they managed in the 2015 World Cup feels highly unlikely.
USWNT ON KRNN, 6/15: The U.S. Women’s National Team competes this month in France for the Soccer World Cup. You are invited to cheer for the team on the radio pitch as we play blues and avoid penalties on WTBA, 6/15 at 5 pm.
In the end Jill Ellis’s roster for France drew overwhelmingly from the core group that emerged during the team’s unbeaten 2018. The Portsmouth-born coach has taken a bit of criticism in the final runup to France for tinkering with formations and trying players in new roles when consistency should be the focus, but this is an experienced team – more than half of the 2015 squad is back for the title defence – that should be ready for what is afoot when the games start in earnest. The main tactical question is whether the US will be able to break down lesser teams with the ability to counter: they struggled to crack the code for a long stretch in the friendly win over South Africa, same as against Sweden in the Rio Olympics.
The premier players are numerous. No fewer than a half-dozen of the forwards in Ellis’s squad would play a feature role for any team in the tournament, including Morgan, Heath and Pugh. But 33-year-old Megan Rapinoe, whose imaginative energy at the Rio Olympics was stunted as she recovered from a third ACL injury, remains the straw that stirs the drink for the United States up top.
A brief history of women’s football in the United States
The 1972 passage of the federal legislation known as Title IX – the law that makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex in any federally funded activity – created opportunities for girls and women to play sports that gave the United States a head start on the international scene.
The US women’s national team didn’t play their first game until 1985 – a 1-0 defeat to Italy in the Mundialito tournament after coming together with less than a week’s notice – but a Michelle Akers and Carin Jennings-inspired squad captured their first World Cup in 1991. The second in 1999 – famously capped by Brandi Chastain’s shootout-clinching penalty against China in front of more than 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl – was an epochal moment in American sports, driving youth participation in girls’ soccer to untold heights and inspiring a new generation of athletes that have endowed the United States with one of the world’s deepest talent pools.
The results speak for themselves: the United States have won three World Cups and never finished worse than third in the tournament, adding four Olympic gold medals along the way.
What is the realistic aim for the United States in France and why?
Given the powerfulness, depth and skill of the United States make them no worse than joint favourites with the hosts, anything short of a fourth World Cup would be a disappointment. A confrontation with Les Bleues will take place in the quarter-finals – at Parc des Princes in Paris on 28 June – if both sides win their groups as expected.
Bryan Armen Graham writes for the Guardian US
Bryan Armen Graham Published: Guardian US Thursday, 06 June 2019