U.S. women's tie with England is entertaining but 'frustrating'
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- For a team that has played three hours of soccer without either winning or losing through its first two games in the SheBelieves Cup, the U.S. women's national team has shown that it can entertain.
The ability to win the World Cup this summer, on the other hand, remains a work in progress.
For that matter, the ability to win the SheBelieves Cup is also in some doubt. After a second consecutive draw, this time a 2-2 stalemate against England after a 2-2 tie against Japan three days earlier, the U.S. women don't even control their own destiny entering the final game against Brazil.
But there was no denying that a game that saw the U.S. take a lead, surrender that lead, pull even again and then push forward time and again in search of a winner pulsated with entertainment value.
"I thought that was an unbelievable advert for women's football," England manager Phil Neville said. "It felt like a top, top game. I know the people back home in England, the messages I've been getting already suggest it was a top-quality game.
"I said to [U.S. coach] Jill Ellis at the end that both teams should be proud, Two teams going toe-to-toe, two teams wanting to win. That's how football should be played."
How it should be played to entertain? Yes. To win titles? Not if you're on the American side.
Through two games, the U.S. women have 33 shots (they outshot England 20-6 on Saturday). Their opponents have 11 shots.
The Americans have 11 shots on goal. Their opponents have five shots on goal.
And the United States has four goals, exactly as many as its foes.
"It's just frustrating," Megan Rapinoe said Saturday. "I felt like there was a lot more in the game for us. But whether it's in the game or not, you have to go take it, make it happen and finish and stay focused every minute of it. And we didn't. There's too many technical errors, there's too many tactical lapses. Just not tough enough, really."
She then started totaling up the goals allowed this year, three against France and two each against Japan and England, all teams eager to make sure the U.S. women don't win their second consecutive World Cup.
"That's just not good enough from us as a team," she said.
The schedule has been brutal, by design, but the math makes the same point.
The U.S. women hadn't allowed multiple goals in consecutive games since losing 2-1 to Sweden and drawing 2-2 against Brazil (before rather memorably advancing in penalty kicks) in the 2011 World Cup. They hadn't given up as many as seven goals in their first four games of a year since 1992, when they gave up seven goals to Norway in the only two games played that year.
Unlike a 3-1 loss in France in January, the United States played very well for very long stretches of the games against Japan and England. But the Americans couldn't keep out the goals.
There is context, be it Becky Sauerbrunn's absence against Japan and much of the game against England, or the shoulder injury sustained against Japan that knocked goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher out of Saturday's game and possibly again Tuesday. Lindsey Horan's ability to direct traffic in midfield is missed.
And on and on the list goes. But context isn't one of the categories on the scoreboard.
"We recognize right now we've got to shore things up," Ellis said. "That's in every possibility, it's on the field, it's in video, it's all those types of things. But ultimately, we've got to make sure that the players understand the margin for error is very small against these top teams in the world. We've been punished several times for that, in terms of these games."
A tactical switch helped create the opening goal. In going from the familiar 4-3-3 to playing with five in the back when defending and three when attacking, the U.S. women could push Kelley O'Hara deeper into the attack on the right side. Duly charging forward, her cross was redirected by a defender. It fell on Rapinoe's chest, which proved the only touch she needed to set up a shot that ripped under the crossbar in the 33rd minute.
Three minutes later, the score was level again. Making her first start for the national team -- just the eighth goalkeeper to do so since 2001 -- Adrianna Franch picked up a Mallory Pugh backpass that two defenders let roll through to her. It was a momentary mistake on a night when Franch looked comfortable on a big stage. But it was costly when England captain Steph Houghton curled home the indirect free kick after Toni Duggan touched it into play.
The backbreaker, or perhaps draw-maker, came early in the second half.
After the United States was dispossessed in its own half, Lucy Bronze, Fran Kirby and Nikita Paris combined in the way elite teams do in such situations. Bronze took one touch in midfield, launched a pass that Kirby first-touched to Paris, who took one dribble in the box and beat Franch low and hard to the far post. One miscue going one way, one goal going the other way.
"If you turn the ball over in the attacking third, you either win the ball or you hack someone down," Rapinoe said in typically pragmatic fashion. "That's pretty simple. And it's just a little bit of focus and ensuring you do everything possible to try to stop [small errors] from happening."
This is the game we needed. It was a must-win game.U.S. coach Jill Ellis
Or perhaps two miscues. While the rest of the back line stepped up, Abby Dahlkemper followed a runner into the box and inadvertently played Paris onside on the far side of the field.
"Our back line, you can't be off a yard against these teams," Ellis said, "In terms of the measure between a win and a loss can be the difference between being a yard with your line or not with your line."
As she usually does, Rapinoe picked the right word in the moments after the draw. The result for the U.S. was frustrating. Not disheartening. Not embarrassing against an England team capable of going all the way this summer. But frustrating because there were so many glimpses of good things.
"I think they're small margins, I really do," Rapinoe said. "I think they're little things, it's not like the whole team is breaking down. But when you play good teams, you need just that margin, that's basically what makes a goal happen or not.
"I think they're just little things, and the lessons are there for us. But we have to learn them."
The U.S. women avoided defeat thanks to a goal from Tobin Heath off a corner kick scramble in the 67th minute, but none of their subsequent efforts to push for the winner proved successful.
Now either England or Japan -- whichever team wins their meeting Tuesday in Tampa, Florida -- probably will win the tournament. Only an England-Japan draw and a U.S. win over Brazil, by a sizable margin, would lead the Americans to the title.
Losing the SheBelieves trophy isn't likely to cost them much sleep. Repeating the errors in France would.
"This is the game we needed," Ellis said. "It was a must-win game. It was a pressure game. I think some of these players recognizing the importance of those details, you hope that now again you reiterate things on the training ground."