U.S. Women's National Team
Yanks Sweep Past Rivals in Inaugural SheBelieves Cup
March 10, 2016
THE UNITED STATES women’s national team captured the inaugural SheBelieves Cup on Wednesday evening, coming from behind to defeat Germany 2-1 in Boca Raton, Florida.
The Germans pressured high and hard early in the contest, and their strategy paid early dividends when Anja Mittag fired home from distance following a Morgan Brian giveaway. Almost immediately, however, the Americans worked their way back into the match with Alex Morgan and Sam Mewis scoring before the halftime break to give the U.S. the advantage—an edge they would ride to victory.
Here are three thoughts on the game.
MORGAN FINALLY FINDING HER FORM
When Morgan first arrived on the international stage, she did so in spectacular fashion—first as a super sub in the 2011 World Cup and then as a key figure in the U.S.’ run to Olympic gold in 2012.
However, Morgan has struggled over the last few years. An ankle injury in 2013 turned into a stress reaction that kept her out for months. Then, in 2014, she reinjured the ankle and missed another long stretch. Morgan didn’t fare much better in 2015, working her way through a bone bruise on her left knee prior to the World Cup, and enduring surgery on her right knee after the tournament.
While Morgan has kept up a respectable goal-scoring rate over that stretch, fans and pundits alike noticed her declining effectiveness. Her pace seemed off, as did her finishing. Against top competition, she struggled, and despite playing all seven games for the U.S. in the 2015 World Cup, she only tallied once in Canada.
Over the past few months, many fans began to wonder whether she should be starting at all, especially with players like Christen Press and Crystal Dunn waiting in the wings. Morgan could no longer get in behind defenses as effectively as she once had, and when she did, she often took her first touch away from goal—typically a sign of declining confidence.
At times, her body language revealed her frustration. Sometimes the frustration manifested itself vocally.
However, Morgan’s last two performances are likely to silence those critics for quite some time. On Sunday, she fired home in stoppage time to help the Americans steal a 1-0 victory from France. On Wednesday night against Germany, she scored one of the most remarkable goals of her career.
In the 35th minute of play, Meghan Klingenberg dug out a tackle to win possession and fired a long pass behind the German defense. Morgan latched onto the pass and, in spectacular fashion, lifted it over a defender with her left foot before firing home with her right. The goal put the Americans back on level terms and turned the momentum in the U.S.’ favor.
“TRY HARD, RUN FAST” STILL WORKS
For years, many have warned about the U.S.’ declining advantage in the women’s game. On some levels, it appeared a fair criticism, as the Americans' margins of victory against middle-tier opponents narrowed, and they struggled to ugly wins over weak teams that bunkered in defensively. While the U.S. did win Olympic gold 2004, 2008, and 2012, they also failed to win the top prize in the 2003, 2007, and 2011 World Cups.
Against top competition, the U.S. often struggles in possession, something evident in all three matches during the SheBelieves Cup. England pressured the U.S. early and controlled the match. France dominated the first half against the Americans and missed two golden chances to take the lead. The Germans swarmed the Americans early and notched the first goal.
Still, the U.S. won all three games.
While some might dismiss these victories as lucky, it’s difficult to argue that a team can be lucky three games in a row against teams ranked No. 2, No. 3, and No. 5 in the world.
Saying those results came as a matter of fortune also dismisses and disrespects the work that goes into building a team that consistently dominates matches the longer they go on.
While England, France, and Germany all put the U.S. on its heels in the early phases of their respective matches, none could sustain that pressure for more than 45 minutes, and the U.S. asserted its advantage in all three games. As their opponents tired, the U.S. found more gaps to keep possession and when the opportunity presented itself, the Americans counterattacked hard and fast.
Coupled with brilliant solo efforts like Dunn’s goal against England and Morgan’s strikes against France and Germany, the U.S. came out on top.
In fact, since losing its 2015 opener to France last January, the Yanks have beaten Germany twice, England twice, and France twice, as well as notching wins against Brazil, Japan, and Canada—all top teams.
While some might bemoan the U.S.’ lack of simple passing and possession early in those contests, no one can argue with the results.
STARTING XI LOOKS SET FOR NOW
On Wednesday night, head coach Jill Ellis made five changes to her starting lineup: Whitney Engen, Sam Mewis, Crystal Dunn, Christen Press, and Ali Krieger started in place of regulars Julie Johnston, Lindsey Horan, Tobin Heath, Mallory Pugh, and Kelley O’Hara.
Heading into the match, Engen had played just 135 minutes for the U.S. over the last six months, a stretch that included 14 games. Last month, Engen—a World Cup veteran—missed out on the Olympic qualifying roster to youngster Emily Sonnett, and the two appear to be involved in a battle for the third center back slot on a limited 18-player Olympic roster.
Press, Krieger, Dunn, and Mewis all started for the first time in the last five U.S. games, with all four players last getting the nod against Puerto Rico in the final group stage game of Olympic qualifying when the Americans had already secured advancement to the knockout round.
Interestingly enough, the switches on Wednesday appeared to be more about resting many starters after a brutal stretch of matches over a short period of time rather than giving them an opportunity to prove their own case. This became obvious when Ellis went to her bench in the second half and subbed out four of the five changes with the very players they originally replaced in the Starting XI.
Clearly, Ellis is decisive. After choosing to start Pugh over Dunn and O’Hara over Krieger, she has stuck with it. The same can be said of her call to hand over the midfield keys to Horan last fall.
And considering the U.S.’ recent run of form, she has made the right call.
John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.