It is certainly a wonderful place to be, and a comment on what the USWNT has built over generations, that they can win three straight games over three decent-to-good teams in the SheBelieves Cup, conceding only one goal, and the overriding emotion is still more apprehensive than swagger. That is the downside when the team’s ethos is simply “Win or bust.” There are no consolation prizes.
The U.S. beat Brazil 2-1 on Wednesday night, and you’ll never believe this but Mallory Swanson scored again, her fourth goal of the tournament and the sixth straight game for her country that she’s scored. This time she was kind enough to finally let a teammate have one, as Alex Morgan drilled in the opener from outside the box with her own Hadoken:
And yet…and yet…the USWNT had the same problems they’ve had for just about the past two years under Vlatko Andonovski. They can’t deal with an intense press, the midfield is still kind of a mess, and they look relatively toothless when faced with a defense that has had time to get set and organized.
The first two problems stem from the U.S. still not having found a successor to Julie Ertz in the No. 6 position. They’ve tried a host of people, and they’re either out of position or simply not up to the task. Japan would have made them pay on Sunday if they had an in-form striker, causing turnover after turnover and eventually outshooting the U.S. 15-5. Brazil, especially in the first half, caused a few loose passes and got some good looks. The U.S. just hasn’t proven it can play through it.
They have tried everything. Kristie Mewis and Lindsey Horan aren’t really defensive midfielders, and aren’t comfortable picking up the ball from the defense facing their own goal and trying to get on the half-turn. Every time Andi Sullivan auditions for the position she leaves with tire tracks across her torso. Brazil on several occasions waltzed through midfield with the ball while either chortling at a Sullivan tackle attempt or finding her woefully out of position. At this level, Sullivan is a No. 6 in the same way Kyle Schwarber is a left-fielder. It just happens to be where they stand when nothing is going on. This is the USWNT’s biggest issue to solve either before or during the World Cup.
As far as not looking inspirational when building possession and around the opposition box, that’s probably a minor tweak from being solved. The wide forwards, last night it was Swanson and Trinity Rodman but was Lynn Williams on Sunday, tend to stay wide, and it leaves only whoever is in the No. 10 role and Alex Morgan to try and break down the through the middle. Encouraging Swanson and whoever is on the other side to come inside and link and let the fullbacks provide the width would do wonders.
The return of Rose Lavelle also was a great aid. She looked rusty as you might expect as it was her first action, but she did pick up the turnover in the second half to set up Swanson for the clincher:
When you have the get out of jail free card
And yet none of those problems may matter. The U.S. still can boast the highest amount of star power in any match, and right now the sharp end of that is Swanson. A match may go to shit, but there’s always a chance when all you have to do is knock the ball into space and she’ll take care of the rest:
The U.S.’s strength is still at forward, and Catarina Macario and Sophia Smith weren’t even healthy for this tournament. The U.S. might not be able to build much, but their speed and energy at forward will still cause a ruckus through pressing and space to exploit. And there is no team that can be as ruthless. With Swanson and some combination of Morgan, Macario, Smith, Rodman, and Williams, they’ll only need a chance or two per match. There are only a select few teams in the world who can play through the U.S. on the reg, and they probably won’t see any of them until at least the semifinals given the way the World Cup draw has shaken out.
If Swanson can carry her form for a few more months, the U.S. will show up with the biggest doomsday gun in the tourney. Her combination of speed, touch, and finish is unmatched, and she can warp a defense. They’re far from perfect, and they have glaring weaknesses that any opponent can see. What they can also see is that they won’t have too many answers for Swanson, who only needs to shake loose once to turn a match. If Swanson is stretching defenses and Lavelle can find space between the lines in that space created, it could be enough (though Lavelle’s form for the national team has been ropey since the last World Cup).
Soccer can be a complicated game. But sometimes it can boil down to “We’ve got that girl and they don’t.” If Swanson is shooting this amount of flames from her toes come mid-July, that might be the only card the USWNT needs.