Three thoughts on the USWNT draw with France
March 05, 2018
Both tallies in the match came in the first half of play, only minutes apart. In the 35th minute, Mallory Pugh tucked away a loose ball opportunity off a corner kick to give the Americans the lead, only for France to equalize three minutes later when the U.S. defense broke down and allowed Eugenie Le Sommer to slide in behind, round goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, and slot home from a tight angle.
Here are three thoughts from the game.
Naeher and Davidson Strong in the Back
Following the departure of Hope Solo from the U.S. national team after the 2016 Olympics, it didn’t take Naeher long to claim the No. 1 job, and since then, she has earned the overwhelming number of available caps for the Americans in the net.
Still, there’s always been a hesitancy among many fans and pundits to fully embrace Naeher as the heir to Solo’s throne—partly because Solo at the top of her game was world-class, partly because Naeher has made mistakes that left many doubting whether she is truly good enough to lead the U.S. to another World Cup title.
Last spring, Naeher struggled in the SheBelieves Cup, particularly against France where a series of errors helped contribute to the U.S.’ lopsided 3-0 loss.
Although 29 years old, Naeher still only has 26 caps for the national team and, at times, her lack of international experience has shown.
However, her confidence seemed to start growing late in 2017 and this year, she’s played well in three games against top opponents.
On Sunday, Naeher played particularly well off her line—the source of many of her errors in 2017—and made two important saves late in the second half when her defense temporarily broke down.
Naeher. pic.twitter.com/CyUL9IKfrZ— Our Game Magazine (@OurGameMagazine) March 4, 2018
For her part, Tierna Davidson also had another strong effort for the Americans at center back. At 19 years old, the Stanford sophomore has only earned three caps, but they’ve come against No. 12 Denmark, No. 2 Germany, and No. 6 France.
In each match, she’s played exceptional, mistake-free soccer. On Sunday, she also provided two last-ditch tackles, one in the 18th minute of play and another in the 53rd minute of play to keep the Americans in the game.
Tierna Davidson. pic.twitter.com/AsGlHVBYFi— Our Game Magazine (@OurGameMagazine) March 4, 2018
Over the past year, many have criticized head coach Jill Ellis for her failure to develop depth at the center back position, but with Davidson’s performances thus far, she looks to be a real contender for a starting spot over the next year as the U.S. heads towards the 2019 World Cup.
Midfield a Mess
Ellis started Sunday’s match with the same front and backline as Thursday’s win over Germany. The wisdom of that decision with three matches in seven days during this tournament aside, her changes in the midfield caused problems for the U.S. all day long.
Out went Carli Lloyd and lynchpin Julie Ertz—who was carrying a minor injury in the Germany game—in came Morgan Brian and Andi Sullivan.
Sullivan took Ertz’ position as the U.S.’ No. 6 and struggled to make a positive impact. Whether by design or not, Sullivan spent most of the afternoon dropping so deep that she often appeared to be playing as a third center back. That forced the Abby Dahlkemper and Davidson wide and, when Sullivan gave the ball away on multiple occasions, forced the American backline into a number of emergency defending situations.
Sullivan’s positioning also left Lindsey Horan and Brian with little help. Horan came off at the half for Savannah McCaskill, who put in an active performance in the second stanza. Brian, however, fresh off a 2017 marred by injury, played the full 90 and repeatedly gave the ball away with poor touches and poor passes.
Certainly nowhere near as sharp as she is capable, Brian did however contribute defensively, often recovering well to help win the ball back, or break up French counterattacks, when she lost possession. In 2014 and 2015 Brian proved to be a difference-maker for the Americans, helping lead the team to a World Cup title. At the moment, it’s clear she still has a long way to go to get back to 100%.
Dahlkemper and Smith Struggled
Following two breakdowns less than two minutes apart, Ellis went to her bench and removed Taylor Smith from Sunday’s contest just before the halftime whistle. Even ignoring the ignominy of being subbed off in the first half, Smith’s performance left much to be desired.
In both the 35th and 37th minutes of play, French attackers found space between Smith and center back Abby Dahlkemper to get in behind. On the first, France put an open shot off the crossbar and on the second, they equalized the scoreline.
Eugénie Le Sommer Scores Goal for France to level score at 1- 1, Video courtesy of: CSTAR Direct, She Believes Cup 2018, #womensfootball #WSUlive #SheBelievesCup #USAFRA #USWNT @ELS_9_FRANCE pic.twitter.com/rAgr8kL52H— WomensSoccerUnited (@WSUasa) March 4, 2018
With Smith out of the game in the second half, Dahlkemper committed another mistake, this time letting an attacker slide in for the open chance in the 82nd minute which Naeher pushed aside.
For both Smith and Dahlkemper, the game proved to be a forgettable encounter.
The Americans next take on England in the final match of the tournament on Wednesday in Orlando (7 p.m. ET, ESPNews).
John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.