U.S. women's national team out to find footing against Brazil (again)
It is overwrought to suggest that the United States women's national team needs to take long hard looks in the mirror just yet. But if some measure of self-reflection is in order, the team faces the right opponent in the final game of the SheBelieves Cup. For better or worse, Brazil has often held up that mirror for the Americans.
It is entirely possible that Tuesday's game between the U.S. and Brazil will be an afterthought in the outcome of the tournament. England and Japan are tied atop the standings, each two points ahead of the U.S. Either can clinch the title with a win in Tuesday's first game in Tampa.
After draws in its first two games, the only scenario by which the U.S. retains the title in the four-year-old event is if England and Japan play to a draw and the U.S. beats Brazil by at least two goals while erasing Japan's advantage in total goals scored (5-4). Even England manager Phil Neville painted Tuesday's opening act as the main attraction, albeit with a noticeably rosy prediction for the Americans in the nightcap.
"It is a final. It's the final of the competition," Neville said of the impetus on both England and Japan to play for a win. "I think if we draw on Tuesday, then USA will win the SheBelieves Cup because I think they'll score goals past Brazil. ... I could see USA scoring three or four goals there."
If so, and whether or not it means the hosts finish the night with a trophy, it might be one more instance of the U.S. approaching a pivot point and finding Brazil waiting.
Take a quick look back.
Sept. 27, 2007: In a strong contender for the all-time low ebb of the women's national team, the U.S. lost to Brazil 4-0 in a World Cup semifinal in China. Equally remembered for Hope Solo's comments afterward about being replaced as starter, more went wrong than one lineup change. The U.S. won the subsequent third-place game, but the tournament marked the end of Greg Ryan's run as coach and the nadir of an era when attendance dwindled and influence waned.
Aug. 21, 2008: Back in China the next year for the Olympics under new coach Pia Sundhage, the U.S. lost its opening game but then went on a run that culminated with a 1-0 win against Brazil in the gold-medal game. Hinting at drama to come from the team, Carli Lloyd scored what proved to be the winner in extra time. Suddenly, the U.S. could counter back-to-back World Cup disappointments with back-to-back Olympic gold medals and new energy.
July 10, 2011: How might history be different if not for the added minutes at the end of extra time in a World Cup quarterfinal against Brazil? For all the positive Olympic momentum from 2008, it would have meant little had the U.S. endured its earliest exit from a major tournament. That was possible after Brazil took the lead early in extra time. Then Brazil wasted time, Megan Rapinoe picked out Abby Wambach's head, and a second golden era was well and truly born.
July 30, 2017: It needn't be a major tournament to matter. Staging the Tournament of Nations for the first time, the U.S. lost its opening game against Australia -- its first loss to the Matildas. In the midst of a revolving door of player auditions after Olympic disappointment, the U.S. was a team in search of continuity and perhaps identity. It was also down 3-1 and heading for a second loss in a row with 12 minutes to play. The epic rally culminated in Julie Ertz's 89th-minute winner, fitting for a game in which she found her new home in midfield.
Aug. 2, 2018: Another year, another Tournament of Nations. The U.S. capped a title run with a 4-1 demolition of Brazil. Although it included a draw against Australia, the U.S. vastly outplayed all three opponents in the event last year. With the roster largely settled, the three performances were the embodiment of the attacking, almost marauding style that coach Jill Ellis wanted to develop.
That Brazil was often the opponent in consequential games is both a coincidence and selective. There are, of course, other meaningful games in the team's recent history. It would be possible to make a list with Sweden. But Brazil's presence isn't random. Forever dependent on themselves more than, say, institutional or infrastructure support back home, the Brazilians play. Any game will be physical, and it will be about your soccer beating their soccer. The way they play gives opponents the opportunity to magnify their own strengths -- or weaknesses.
Tuesday night might not be a pivot point in the long-term course of the program, but it could go a long way to defining the momentum, not to mention the tenor of the conversation, this spring.
By themselves or in tandem, the games against England and Japan were disappointing in the results but not without positives in the play. On its own, a 3-1 loss to France in January was explicable -- an American lineup at less than full strength at the end of the team's preseason losing to a French team whose players are in the middle of their league seasons. Wins at Scotland and Portugal to close out 2018 were workmanlike but achieved the desired results.
However, when all of those factors start to accumulate in short order, from difficulty scoring goals abroad to a penchant for costly mistakes at home, June 11 begins to feel uncomfortably soon.
"They're a team that can look at you, and they're good enough tactically to be able to try and exploit or implement things to make you have challenges," Ellis said of England after the 2-2 draw. "That's exactly what we need. Are we doing enough to imprint our game on our opponent? Those are things, good takeaways, in terms of this and our confidence in staying with the things we believe, being true to who we are."
What the U.S. could use right about now is a commanding performance without caveats.
Asked after the draw against the U.S. what separated his team from other contenders, Neville eventually settled on the idea that England was enjoying itself.
"It's probably slightly different for the USA because when you're on the top, you're there to be shot at," Neville said. "We're actually a team that's actually enjoying the moment."
The U.S. has enjoyed a lot of memorable games against Brazil. It wouldn't hurt to enjoy Tuesday night.