The final tune-up match before a major tournament would seem an inopportune time for flaws in a team's construction to reveal themselves. iIn the wake of the U.S. women's national team's 0-0 draw with South Korea, that's the situation in which the Americans and manager Jill Ellis find themselves.
To be fair, the last friendly before a World Cup can be tricky. Players want to gain sharpness, but they want to avoid injury as well. They also don't want to completely tip their hands as to how they'll operate when games really matter. That said, there is no way this is how the United States wanted to perform heading into the World Cup. For the first time since 2008, the U.S. women failed to score at home (also against South Korea). The U.S. midfield looked out of sync for much of the day against a South Korean side that was well-drilled defensively and lively on the counter. The unpredictability of Megan Rapinoe, who sat out the match with a thigh injury, was clearly missed.
Alex Morgan also missed the match, which did little to dampen the concerns about the status of her injured left knee, despite reassurances from everyone involved -- including Morgan herself -- that she will be ready. When the United States takes the field June 8, it will have been 58 days since Morgan played a competitive match for club or country.
For South Korea, attacking midfielder Ji Hyo-Sun looked dangerous every time she was on the ball, and the knock-on effect was telling. Ji's effectiveness forced Lauren Holiday to defend far more than she wanted, which seemed to impact her ability to connect passes and initiate the attack, at which point more dominoes started to fall. South Korea felt comfortable taking a high line, which saw the United States fall in love with the long ball too much. That limited the effectiveness of outside midfielders Morgan Brian and Christen Press.
It was left to Carli Lloyd to try to fix matters. The midfielder began dropping deeper to not only get in some needed tackles, but also help initiate the attack. It was no accident the best attacking moves in the first half came through Lloyd, including one pass that got caught in the spokes of Sydney Leroux, who could only hit her shot wide.
The second half wasn't much better for the U.S. women, though Leroux should have done better after Lloyd, Brian and Abby Wambach combined to set the U.S. forward up for a shot that was saved brilliantly by South Korean goalkeeper Kim Jung-mi.
Who can be counted on to spark the U.S. attack when the team struggles in the absence of players such as Rapinoe and Morgan? Tobin Heath could be the answer to that question. She twice played accurate, defense-splitting passes to Leroux that created good opportunities but weren't converted.
That will do little to allay fears regarding the balance of the U.S. midfield. Is Holiday really the answer to play in a holding midfield role when her strengths are clearly on the attacking side of the game? Will Rapinoe's attacking presence be enough to take the pressure off? Will Lloyd be forced to track back and constantly help Holiday with defensive duties?
One solution is to have Holiday and Lloyd swap roles, much like they did at the 2012 Olympics, when they formed a very effective combination. But it seems a bit late to be contemplating such a change. This is the team Ellis has constructed. Starting June 8, we'll see how it holds up.
Player ratings: (0-10, with 5 being average)
G Hope Solo, 7: She had a relatively quiet day, with few touches until a stoppage time blast saw her produce a brilliant, two-handed save. She was a bit off with her distribution from her feet but did well to tip an awkward first-half shot over the bar.
D Meghan Klingenberg, 6.5: She defended capably and found time to get forward as well. She nearly found the target with a first-half shot that flew narrowly wide.
D Becky Sauerbrunn, 7.5: Ellis must sleep well at night knowing Sauerbrunn is in her lineup. The defender snuffed out a few dangerous situations and was impeccable with her passing out of the back.
D Julie Johnston, 7: She seemed a bit in love with the long ball when there were options underneath, but she was sharp with her defending, including one instance in which she covered well on a rare occasion when Sauerbrunn was beaten.
D Ali Krieger, 6: She was solid in all respects, though she wasn't that impactful going forward. She is paid to defend, however, and there were no complaints on that end.
M Morgan Brian, 6: She looked subdued in the first half compared to her performance against Mexico but picked up her game considerably after halftime. She looked much more comfortable when moved to a central position.
M Lauren Holiday, 4: She struggled defensively and with her passing, which doesn't bode well for when she'll have to defend talented playmakers at the World Cup. She perked up a bit after halftime, but this was by no means a confidence-builder.
M Carli Lloyd, 6.5: She was the best attacker on the park by a comfortable margin in the first half. She looked to get on the ball and was willing to drop deep when needed. Her level did drop in the second half, as she didn't connect as often.
M Christen Press, 5: She connected on her passes decently enough but never seemed that dangerous, no matter where she lined up, be it at either wing or at forward. Her best chance came early in the second half, but her header was right at the keeper.
F Sydney Leroux, 5.5: She used her strength and speed to good effect and had some great chances, but the finishing touch was lacking.
F Abby Wambach, 6: She provided her usual physical presence but was off a bit with her link play. That said, she teed up Leroux for a glorious chance that was saved.
M Tobin Heath, 7: If for some reason Rapinoe can't go, Heath looks the best alternative. She played two brilliant passes to release Leroux and was dangerous throughout.
D Christie Rampone, 6: She was largely solid, though she was guilty of a giveaway late that was defended with little trouble.
F Amy Rodriguez, 6: She provided some good energy up top and took up some good positions, but the service into her was lacking.
D Lori Chalupny, 6: There was no drop-off detected after she entered the game at left back.
M Heather O'Reilly, 5: She came on late but, aside from one header that went over the bar, was unable to provide much of a spark.
D Kelley O'Hara, NR: A late cameo for the defender.