The United States Women's National Team opened up their 2018 campaign with a win on Sunday night against the 2017 UEFA Women's Euro runners-up Denmark. The12th-ranked Danish team didn't provide much of a challenge for the top-ranked Americans in the end, but the game started off in an unsettled manner for the USWNT.
The offense is the best that it has been in years
Even during the magical run to the 2015 Women's World Cup title, the USWNT had troubles on offense. Especially during the group stage, the Americans had trouble fitting together the assortment of old and new on offense. The 2016 Rio Olympics, where the USWNT was eliminated at their earliest stage in the history of the tournament, and the 2017 SheBelieves Cup were the depths of the offensive struggles that the team faced.
The most impressive player of the night was Mallory Pugh. The 19-year-old forward got the team started when she picked the pocket of a Danish defender, pushed the ball deep into the box, and played a perfect pass in to forward Alex Morgan. The goal was especially important since it occurred three minutes after Denmark took a 1-0 lead. Pugh scored the third and fourth goals for the United States by dribbling right at the Danish defenders, pulling the ball back to create space and then easily beat the keeper with perfectly placed shots.
Julie Ertz, whose husband won the NFC Championship Game while she was helping beat Denmark, has become a phenomenal playmaker who excels at scoring from unique angles. While Ertz typically scores with her head, on Sunday she added a new wrinkle to her offensive prowess by deflecting a header from Tierna Davidson over the head of Danish goalkeeper Stina Petersen.
In addition to those two players, the rest of the forwards consistently crashed the net and found ways to finish off their opportunities. The Americans generated 19 shots with eight of them on goal. To put this offensive performance into perspective, the Danish team allowed just six goals in six games at the 2017 Eufa Women's Euro, with four of those goals coming in the championship game against the Netherlands.
Jill Ellis is sticking with Naeher
Alyssa Naeher, who plays for the Chicago Red Stars in the National Women's Soccer League, has started 14 of the last 17 USWNT matches despite head coach Jill Ellis consistently calling three or four goalkeepers into National Team camp. It is clear that Ellis is looking to build relationships and trust between the defenders and their goalkeeper rather than switching things up to test out different goalkeepers.
Naeher was unimpressive on Sunday night, failing to save the only shot Denmark put on frame throughout the game. The one goal, which came off a Danish corner kick, seemed to confuse Naeher, who took two steps out of goal before retreating back to her line. The indecision left her off balance and unable to stop the header from former Portland Thorn Nadia Nadim that was placed on the far left side of the goal. It's hard to make more of an assessment of the goalkeeping with Denmark failing to find their offensive form through the last 77 minutes of the match.
The early goal allowed brought back unpleasant memories of the SheBelieves Cup and the first two matches of the Tournament of Nations, and many fans were hoping to see Adrianna Franch, who broke the NWSL record with 11 shutouts in 2017, get a shot at the starting gig.
Both teams looked unpolished
The lack of recent game experience was clear from the beginning of the match, with both teams making repeated mistakes throughout the match. Especially early in the game, it was obvious that the Americans were rusty after not playing a regular schedule in nearly three months. Giving up the opening goal helped energize the Americans, but it was hard to deny, even after finding their offensive form, that the players weren't quite up to snuff. The NWSL has set up their season perfectly to end just before the CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying Tournament, so that won't be a danger when the USWNT works to play itself into the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.
Denmark, on the other hand, looked completely out of sorts for the vast majority of the game. If you take away the one perfect corner kick play there wasn't much to laud from their performance. The most frustrating thing about Denmark was that they had multiple corner kicks after the goal, but they never came back to the play that worked at the beginning of the game.
Easily the least impressive player for Denmark was goalkeeper Petersen. She repeatedly played the ball out to defenders who were under immediate pressure or alternately played the ball directly to the feet of the American forwards. She watched the goal by Ertz float over her head without making a play on the ball, and then nearly made the same mistake when a gentle shot rolled off the inside post of her goal. She was able to pounce on the ball, but she seemed genuinely surprised that the ball nearly found its way into the back of her net. This was not the same Denmark squad that knocked off Germany in the 2017 Euro.
It will be extremely important for the Danes to find their form quickly. The European World Cup Qualifying group stage is currently in progress, and Denmark forfeited a game against Sweden during a pay dispute that was eventually resolved in the favor of the players. Sweden was awarded a 3-0 victory and Denmark was fined approximately 150,000 Euros, but Sweden is appealing the decision in an effort to recoup perceived losses of revenue and claiming that the punishment for canceling the match was insufficient. Denmark has won both of the matches they have played in the qualifying tournament, not including the forfeit.