After setback in draw with France, USWNT trying to live for the moment
HARRISON, N.J. -- It was easy enough to see and hear how disappointed the United States was with a 1-1 draw against France on Sunday afternoon. The language, be it of the body or spoken variety, offered no search for silver linings in a game that began under a bright blue sky.
The disappointment wasn't because the Americans weren't good enough to beat France, listless in a comprehensive defeat against England three days earlier. It wasn't that entirely, at least. There was the competitor's desire to win any game, of course, especially one against a team with similar aspirations of global soccer supremacy. But beating France on a chilly afternoon in the SheBelieves Cup in March isn't the main motivation that drives this team any more than it was the main motivation for more than 25,000 fans to bundle up and make their way to Red Bull Arena.
What the team wants, and what stokes its substantial following, was on display at halftime. That was when the U.S. women's hockey team took the field, gold medals around each player's neck after success in the Winter Olympics. What matters is that one moment, be it Olympics or World Cup, when the whole world pays attention.
The soccer team didn't look ready for that moment.
"Just pretty bad all around," Megan Rapinoe said. "For where we are, and where we want to be going and really the progression we should be making, it was not good enough. It was bad."
Still to learn is if Sunday was the price to pay to be ready for that moment in 2019.
For the first time in nearly a year, Morgan Brian started for the U.S. and played 90 minutes. And for only the seventh time, rarely before against a team of France's caliber, Andi Sullivan started.
Two of the most technically adept midfielders available to U.S. coach Jill Ellis, two celebrated NCAA stars whose rise to the national team bordered on meteoric, they were two-thirds of a midfield that struggled Sunday to connect the lines and generate much energy or attack.
To be sure, the midfield was far from Sunday's only culprit. But it earned its share of culpability.
"Overall it was too many turnovers at times," Ellis said. "I think when we got into good positions, we were able to play through them. And then at times the decision-making and the touch was sometimes off. They're players with good brains, both of them, and we look to get better."
That the women's national team had its moment in the 2015 World Cup had more than a little to do with Brian. Barely out of college, she stepped into a starting role midway through that event and ably filled a role that helped free Carli Lloyd to move forward and pile up the goals that the U.S. needed to get through the knockout round and win its first title since 1999.
If there was a sure thing at the time, it was Brian's place in the national team's starting lineup for the next decade. Instead, injuries slowed her in the months since, never catastrophic but the kind of accumulating misery -- hamstrings and groins -- that can wear away even a world-class athlete's confidence. While French giant Lyon made clear what it thought of her when it signed her to a multiyear contract this winter, it was a frustrating year for her that ended Sunday.
But that year in purgatory did end. That alone made Sunday worthwhile.
"It was a 1-1 tie, so I think at the end of the day it was a frustrating performance for us," Brian said. "But obviously personally, I'm really happy to play 90 minutes. It's been a really long last year for me, so I'm glad I could help the team that way. I think it's just about progressing from here."
There were moments when it looked right Sunday. Mallory Pugh put the U.S. ahead 1-0 in the 35th minute when she kept her balance and composure on a goalmouth scramble that followed a Rapinoe free kick, but the sequence that led to the free kick began with Brian pinging a pass across the field to Kelley O'Hara on the left flank. But other times, too often, both Brian and Sullivan labored on the ball or appeared indecisive in building the attack.
Brian looked rusty, Sullivan looked young. Perhaps that should have been expected.
"It's been a long time for me since I played an international game 90 minutes," Brian said. "It's just going to be about getting back into things. Physically, I think I'm getting better. It's about getting game minutes and that experience back. And I think it will come quick, it's just once you come back from something it's about getting that 90 minutes under your belt."
France's Eugenie Le Sommer leveled the score just three minutes after Pugh's goal. As U.S. players made their way back to midfield for the restart, Alex Morgan could be seen trying to communicate something to both Brian and Sullivan. She wasn't the only one. The front line, particularly Morgan and Rapinoe, were starved for touches much of the game.
"It just needs to be a little bit crisper in terms of getting themselves open and kind of that push and pull," Rapinoe said. "Speed through the midfield -- not necessarily that we have to play 100 miles an hour, but you've got to think pretty quickly. And making sure that we're doing things to set up other things. Obviously, if we're going up one side, we're not really trying to go up that side -- we're trying to get out to the other side and break pressure.
"I think, for me, it's probably more of the intellectual part of the game, thinking quickly in the tactical thinking part of the game. When you don't think quickly, when you leave yourself having to make decisions under pressure, your technical mistakes are going to increase."
It isn't difficult to work out a depth chart on the other U.S. lines. There is ample depth at forward, but some combination of Tobin Heath, Morgan, Pugh and Rapinoe are who Ellis would surely like to occupy the three starting spots in a big game. Likewise, while Tierna Davidson continues making her case for minutes somewhere on the back line, it appears in stable shape with Abby Dahlkemper and Becky Sauerbrunn, when the co-captain is healthy, in the middle with O'Hara and one of Casey Short, Taylor Smith or perhaps even Davidson on the outside.
Alyssa Naeher, who made two crucial saves to preserve the draw, is the No. 1 goalkeeper.
The midfield is the question mark, not because of a lack of options but because the depth chart is so difficult to read and the variations so distinctly different. Sullivan offers a completely different style in the No. 6 role than Julie Ertz, who sat out Sunday with what was described as essentially physical wear and tear. Brian is a different player in the No. 8 role than Samantha Mewis, who emerged as a mainstay in Brian's absence last year but is out of this tournament because of an injury. And each offers something different alongside Lloyd, the other midfield puzzle piece.
"Today there were spurts where it was some really good play through our midfield, and then at times it sputtered," Ellis said. "It was decisions and reactions and how we open up the spaces. I think Andi showed, at times, a young player and then an older player, in terms of some of the things she did. At this point in a player's career ... these are the type of game she needs in terms of playing against these big teams."
So, too, Brian, no matter her World Cup experience. She did not attend the team's extended January training camp in California, Ellis agreeing it was best for her to remain with Lyon, which she had just joined, and work her way back into playing form in France. Perhaps the most talent-rich club in women's soccer, it was the best place for her to be in order for her and the U.S. to have the best chance of being in Lyon next summer for the World Cup final.
"I think she's going to, not just get back to where she was, but hopefully beyond that with her growth," Ellis said at the time. "I'm very optimistic for her."
Optimism in any form was in short supply Sunday as the U.S. prepared to leave for Orlando, Florida, and its final game in the tournament against England. But this wasn't the moment that matters. To get those, you sometimes suffer these.