In its last outing until the Olympics, the U.S. women’s national soccer team put on a performance that will have its upcoming opponents squirming. The USWNT, which is riding a 44-match unbeaten streak, is the favorite for the gold medal in Tokyo and, on Monday against Mexico, showed why.
The final score was 4-0, identical to the first match of the two-game send-off series against La Tri — but the final impression left by the USWNT was decidedly different from the first game: it’s an impression strong enough to last for the long 16 days left until the opening group match against Sweden.
”It was a statement for ourselves that we cannot take any game for granted,” said captain Becky Sauerbrunn. “Every single game we have to make a statement to ourselves because we are our own worst enemy sometimes.”
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The U.S. came out of the gates with a purpose, smothering Mexico with relentless pressure, a voracious appetite for second balls and overpowering numbers in the attack that led to a 2-0 lead inside 11 minutes (goals by Lindsey Horan and Carli Lloyd). After a disallowed goal and a penalty kick missed by the officials, the USWNT kept its foot on the gas and tacked on another two goals (own goal and Tobin Heath) to round out the first-half scoring.
The U.S. was prolific, finding different ways to score. And every player wanted in on the action, including the defenders. The American women were aggressive and motivated for the full 45 minutes: It wasn’t always crisp and precise, but when the plays were coming off, the U.S. was unstoppable.
”We displayed a good brand of soccer today and scored some good goals,” coach Vlatko Andonovski said about the game, later lamenting the disallowed goal because of an accidental whistle. He called it “the most beautiful goal that we scored as a team.”
The USWNT dialed it back in the second half, almost in a show of mercy. The first half was enough of a glimpse of what’s to come when the games count.
Could that be the starting lineup vs. Sweden?
Andonovski talks about having a now-expanded group of 22 Olympians who are all starting quality, but every combination of those players will not produce the same result.
It’s not farfetched to look at the starting XI he fielded against Mexico as the potential lineup for the opening game against the toughest opponent in the group (Sweden): The four defenders and three midfielders (Sam Mewis, Horan, Rose Lavelle) appear to be locks, with Heath and Lloyd getting the nod ahead of Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan in two of the three forward positions.
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It was a starting group that gave the USWNT attack a blend of dynamism, creativity, improvisation, and quick-passing combination play that should be enough to overwhelm most opponents. The scoring chances were incessant in that first half.
“The bravery in trying to play as much as possible,” Horan noted about what’s new in the USWNT identity heading into the 2021 Olympics. “I think you saw some of the combination play today, the one-twos, the cheeky flicks, etc. Just adding another evolution to our game and how we can play with the transition [attack] in our back pocket and knowing we can always be the best team in the world at that.”
A day of experiments
A primary reason why the U.S. came out on the front foot is the fact that Horan, the deep-lying midfielder, started the match up top with the other three forwards (essentially a 3-3-4 formation). Andonovski was testing the tactical set-up for moments when the USA will need to push for a goal. It produced the desired result — a goal after just six minutes — and, more importantly, it set the tone for the team for the entire first half.
Andonovski had indicated before the match he would use this final tune-up game for these types of experiments. He also went to a 5-4-1 with three center backs to close out the match, mimicking a situation when the U.S. might need to lock it down in protection of a result.
”For us it’s not just executing it here (in the game), but also creating pictures,” Andonovski (above) explained, referring to actual photographs, “and using it as a learning opportunity so we can further analyze it and see what the distances between the players are horizontally and vertically and how they’re covering for each other.”
While the variations may have had the desired effect against No. 28-ranked Mexico, the likes of No. 5 Sweden, No. 9 Australia and No. 22 New Zealand will probably adjust to the tweaks a lot differently.
What’s the plan for Julie Ertz?
Ertz (below) was seen on the broadcast watching the game from a suite. She will head to the Olympics without seeing any minutes of official game action in the lead-up.
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She’s still recovering from a right knee MCL injury suffered in NWSL play with the Chicago Red Stars back on May 17. Andonovski, who expressed in May how the USWNT was “going to be very careful in terms of how we approach her recovery,” didn’t provide any details when Sporting News asked whether Ertz’s recovery timeline could see her being an option to start the first match against Sweden.
”Juie Ertz will most likely, or most definitely, be involved in those (scrimmages) and will play just as everybody else,” Andonovski said about the intrasquad scrimmages that the team will be filling the days with once it arrives in Japan.
So Horan, who scored on a spectacular volley to open the scoring, will likely continue filling in for Ertz at the holding midfielder position to start the Olympics, as she has been in the matches since Ertz’s injury. That will give the USWNT time to perhaps reintegrate Ertz slowly as the tournament progresses.
She played very good,” Andonovski said of Horan’s performance on Monday. “She’s a total footballer — understands the game, knows the game and regardless of what position she plays, she’s going to do well and she’s showed it today.”
Next up: Japan
In a couple of days the team will be in Japan for a pre-Olympic training camp in Miyazaki, on the southern island of Kyushu.
But in the two weeks until that first match against Sweden, the USWNT is not planning on playing against other teams. Mexico was the final opponent until the Olympic opener on July 21.
“Most likely, we’re not going to be able to schedule anything because of our COVID protocols, which are very strict,” Andonovski said. “Of course, we can do it [schedule matches against other teams], but we don’t want to risk anything. So all the scrimmages are going to be closed door, intrasquad scrimmages.”
The fact that it will be scrimmages from here on out is not necessarily a negative. The U.S. players often mention how the competition at USWNT training can be better than any competitive match.
”I feel we’re prepared and moving in the right direction,” Andonovski confidently said about his team’s readiness for Tokyo 2021. “Slowly but surely, we are fulfilling all the tasks necessary to be fully prepared for the Olympics.”
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