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Lauletta: The good and bad of a wild USWNT comeback

Sam Mewis and Megan Raipnoe. (photo: U.S. Soccer)

Sam Mewis and Megan Raipnoe. (photo: U.S. Soccer)

Sunday may have been the best, most exciting day of wall-to-wall, around-the-globe, readily accessible WoSo. In the final of five games—with zero overlap—the United States put a cherry on top of the Sunday sundae by scoring three times in the last 10 minutes to pull out a 4-3 win over Brazil. The win was particularly remarkable not only for the comeback itself, but because nothing was going well at all for the U.S. starting with an Alyssa Naeher blunder to gift Brazil a goal 70 seconds into the match.

Here are two key thoughts on the match plus some notes from the day in WoSo.

The Comeback

Whether you left this game scratching your head over bizarre lineup choices and poor defending, or doing cartwheels over the reemergence of the USWNT’s famous, never-say-die attitude (somewhere in the middle, leaning to the former is appropriate; read on to see more), it is impossible to ignore any match where a team wins from 3-1 down in the 80th minute. And whether or not you want to go all-in on “US mentality” the fact is that many teams would not have won that game.

The irony is that at 3-1 Brazil, you could argue that the U.S. just as easily could have been ahead by that score. Naeher turned an easy catch into a Brazil goal in the 2nd minute, Mal Pugh misfired on a simple redirect into an open goal she could have hugged, and several other points in the match could have turned things in either direction. And then all of a sudden, U.S. skill took over.

First Christen Press made a perfect run which Megan Rapinoe picked out, and then she used several of the seemingly unlimited tools at her disposal to beat a defender, make a subtle move to wrong-foot the keeper, and smash a shot high to the near post that Barbara got a hand on but not much else.

Five minutes later Press and Rapinoe swapped roles. This time Press played a sensational ball that both switched the point and slipped Rapinoe in behind the defense. Aided by a slight tactical slip-up by Barbara who had the near post covered by inexplicable made a small move back toward the middle, Rapinoe fired it through the narrow opening to level the match.

At that point the entire script had flipped. The U.S. went from beaten to buzzing. Brazil went from swaggering to swirling. Even on television you could feel the ghosts of 2011 seeping into Brazil’s play. They eventually conceded a corner kick that looked like it was always in bounds, but that was ancient history as the U.S. recycled and Brazil could not get hold of it. Finally Kelley O’Hara overlapped for a cross that Barbara made a desperate lunge for leaving Ertz an open goal to score the winner.

These are magical stretches that don’t come around very often. And regardless of how you feel about the rest of the match or how Thursday goes in terms of the final Tournament of Nations standing, this is a 10-minute stretch that ought to be savored.

The Experiments

Here’s how the U.S. lined up in back. Kelley O’Hara and Taylor Smith were outside backs. Abby Dahlkemper and Casey Short (!) were center backs. Becky Sauerbrunn was the holding midfielder.

My first thought was simple. Becky Sauerbrunn is an all-time, all-world center back. Why any coach would ever “experiment” with her at any other position is beyond me. You wouldn’t hire Picasso to do your landscaping or Mozart to cook your dinner. Similarly, I don’t see how anywhere in the thousands of different visions of the 2019 World Cup, anyone on the U.S. Soccer coaching staff can justify one with Becky Sauerbrunn in the lineup and not as a central defender.

The next thought came about 15 minutes in when it became apparent that Casey Short is not a central defender. Maybe a quarter hour isn’t enough time to make an adequate assessment, but at the same time, the national team is not developmental camp. Players are brought to the team because of what they have done at youth or professional levels. Just like forcing Allie Long into the 3-5-2 was the greater transgression than the 3-5-2 itself, there are loads of players who actually play center back and holding mid that can be called in rather than taking established players and trying to hammer them into spaces they’re not built for.

Add to this that Dahlkemper and Naeher—in their natural positions—played about as poorly as they’re capable of, and it was not a great day for the USWNT defense. Jill Ellis must not have liked it either because less than 15 minutes after halftime she took out Smith and replaced her with Ertz. With that came the predictable shuffling with Short pushing wide, Sauerbrunn dropping back, and Ertz going to the holding midfield spot she has played so well in Chicago.

It’s difficult to say the return to more traditional positions helped much because Brazil scored twice after that. But players generally seemed more comfortable in the roles that actually got them on the national team.

Experimenting is good and I am not advocating for a set lineup through every match or even every camp. In fact if Ellis really wanted to see how well Dahlkemper could lead the line (as she said postgame; The Equalizer did not have a reporter on site) she could have really experimented and left Sauerbrunn at home. Players need their mental and physical rest. And the experiments should be saved for where they are needed. Becky Sauerbrunn as a center back is not where anyone needs to be tinkering.

Notes on Brazil and others

In my tournament preview with Chelsey Bush, I alluded to Brazil having passed the U.S. by in the late 2000s only be undone by an inferior mentality. Never were both sides of that coin on display more than the 2011 World Cup quarterfinal match most famous for Abby Wambach’s late equalizer. But so much of what transpired in Germany that night was a failure of Brazil to take the game by the throat and squeeze the life out of it. Sunday’s 4-3 loss to the U.S. was not nearly in the same realm as the 2011 World Cup, but at the end of the day, Brazil should be able to see out a 3-1 lead against any team in the world under any circumstances.

Ironically it happened on the day France crashed out of the European Championship meaning another major tournament without a podium. You can make the argument that not having Wendie Renard and Eve Perisset was the difference against England. I would counter that France had no excuse for getting either player suspended—especially Perisset—or for playing poorly enough to lose their group and draw England in the quarters instead of Spain. It will be a long, soul-searching two years for France before they host the 2019 World Cup.

In a match much of the U.S. missed due to the odd hour or a lack of ESPN3 coverage, Denmark dumped Germany out of the EUROs, ending the German run at six in a row. Last time they didn’t win was 1993. That was before a professional women’s soccer game was played in the United States, before women ever contested an Olympic soccer match, and before Christie Pearce ever set foot in a U.S. Soccer camp.

Don’t expect Megan Rapinoe to change her colors at 33, but I think it’s safe to say the ACL recovery is done and dusted. She has been the most energetic player on the park for the United States in both games.

Ali Krieger has not played yet meaning she will not win her 100th cap at Tournament of Nations. She remains stuck on 98.

Two contrasting visuals I can’t get out of my head. Carli Lloyd, on the ground begging for a handball call with the ball still in play juxtaposed against Sam Kerr following up a rebound of her own miss to score the middle goal of her first half hat trick in Australia’s win over Japan.

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About Bill Hancock

I am a father of 2 young soccer players. My daughter is 8 and my son is 16. They are the reason I became interested in soccer. The more I learned about soccer the more I realized that it is indeed the beautiful game! I am focused on helping players (and parents) develop the skills necessary to find success and enjoyment in this wonderful sport.

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