U.S. women settle for draw in SheBelieves Cup opener with Japan
CHESTER, Pa. -- Exactly 100 days until the Women's World Cup begins in France, Japan reminded the U.S. women that the margin that separates any two of the world's elite teams is small.
And by the time the final whistle blew Wednesday, there was no margin at all.
Despite a dominant offensive performance, the U.S. women twice gave up one-goal leads and settled for a 2-2 draw against Japan when Yuka Momiki leveled the score in the first minute of stoppage time in their opening game in the SheBelieves Cup.
It marked the first time since Jill Ellis took over as coach in 2014 that an opponent erased two U.S. leads.
"I wasn't disappointed in the players, wasn't disappointed in the performance," Ellis said. "Obviously disappointed in the result."
From start to finish, the game was evidence of both how committed the U.S. women are to an attacking identity. And also how perilous that existence can be against quality opponents.
Without injured Lindsey Horan, Ellis didn't attempt to make a like-for-like substitution in midfield. She instead started Mallory Pugh alongside Julie Ertz and Rose Lavelle. Relegated to coming off the bench on the front line behind Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe in recent months, Pugh in the midfield Wednesday made the United States as attacking-minded as it can be.
That isn't a new philosophy for the U.S. women. It's the same reason former forward Crystal Dunn is now the regular starter at outside back. Play talent. And the U.S. women are deepest in talent among attacking players.
That was hard to argue through the first half.
The United States' first goal came from a familiar combination, with Heath getting to the end line on the right side and pulling the ball back to Rapinoe, who tapped it in with one touch. But Pugh played her part in the goal, playing the ball that released Heath down the sideline. And even before that, Pugh, Heath and Kelly O'Hara combined in what looked almost like a juggling act to keep possession in tight space near the team's bench.
Pugh and Lavelle were effective both going forward and, especially in Lavelle's case, fighting to win back possession as soon as it was lost.
"I think actually that's the best we've ever broken Japan down," Ellis said. "We were talking as coaches, ironically it was 4-1 last year [in the Tournament of Nations], but we feel better about the performance in terms of things we did tonight, and our growth, than we did even last year."
She contested the idea that there was a marked difference in that before and after halftime.
"In terms of performance, first half to second, we created chances in both halves," Ellis said.
To her point, the draw was largely the product of two specific breakdowns -- leading to the only two shots on goal Japan had in the game, though Kumi Yokoyama's shot in the 11th minute caromed off the crossbar. On Emi Nakajima's goal that tied the score 1-1 in the 67th minute, Tierna Davidson's attempted clearance hit Nakajima and inadvertently set her up to finish a curling left-footed shot that gave keeper Alyssa Naeher no chance.
Ever attacking, replacing Pugh with another forward in Christen Press, the U.S. women reclaimed the lead when Press set up Alex Morgan for the captain's 99th career goal in the 76th minute. But the draw was sealed in added time when Davidson and Abby Dahlkemper committed to the same Japanese player and Momiki slipped behind Dunn and the overstretched back line.
Those miscues were all it took. Those were the margins.
"Obviously, when we get to playing the biggest teams in the biggest moments, it does change in one moment, one counterattack or one whatever," Rapinoe said. "I think we just get caught sometimes going forward too much, taking too may risks. We just need to control the game when we have it in hand toward the end with possession. And just making sure we're not taking any of those risks and leaving ourselves exposed in the back."
Even if Ellis disputed the notion, it still felt as if the U.S. women struggled to find the right balance to their attack in the second half. Even before Japan scored its first goal, it had more possession through much of the second half, as the U.S. pace appeared to slow. There were times when Rapinoe could be seen gesturing her hands in the universal sign for speeding things up.
"We just need to move it quicker," Rapinoe said of what happens when the attack falls out of sync. "Sometimes, it feels like we get to one person, they're making a decision, then the next person. Sometimes, it just needs to move around quicker and then things open up more naturally. I think most of that frustration just comes from it getting a little stuck, and then it puts the next person in a worse position to try to make the right decision."
It's a delicate balance. Don't take unnecessary risks going forward with a lead. Don't put the back line in a position where one misstep can lead to disaster. But at the same time, don't drift away from the pace and mindset that shapes your identity.
More than any trophy, that is the purpose of these games.
"You just hope that these games will help prepare you," Heath said. "And I think each individual taking responsibility and accountability for their form moving forward. That cohesion is going to happen with these games and the expectation that this team has to come together and understand each other. And with the same faces in the same positions, the more we get that kind of consistency, the more you're going to see this group grow."
The United States next faces England in Nashville, Tennessee, on Saturday.
Ranked fourth in the world, England didn't look the part in the first half of its tournament opener on Wednesday against Brazil. Flat in their pressure and sloppy in possession, the English fell behind on a penalty drawn by Marta and converted by Andressa. But second-half goals from Ellen White and Beth Mead, though individually impressive, reflected England's overall command of play after halftime in its 2-1 win.