The USWNT hosted Australia in the hosts first clash of the four-team Tournament of Nations on Thursday night. Both the stakes and the expectations for the USA in what essentially counts as a series of friendlies is remarkably high, as the next phase of head coach Jill Ellis’ plan to guide a younger, more artful squad towards the 2019 World Cup came under scrutiny after the team’s poor showing at the SheBelieves Cup earlier this year.
On their end, Australia looked to use the tournament to get good experience for some of their up-and-coming players, as well as utilize the talents of a roster full of players that have been in excellent form for their club squads in the NWSL.
Upon the announcement of the starting roster for this game, it was clear that Ellis was making good on her word to truly try new personnel and to see how less experienced players hold up against top quality opposition.
North Carolina Courage defender Taylor Smith got her first cap with the senior squad, slotting into the right back role. Portland Thorns midfielder Lindsey Horan got pushed further up the field from her previous role with the US as a center midfielder, and Megan Rapinoe and Christen Press were rewarded for their stellar club play with starts in the left wing and up top at striker, respectively.
This looked like a formation that would force quick thinking and cohesion, but wasn’t necessarily set up with a ton of offensive firepower. For their part, Australia came in with an aggressive 3-back formation, with NWSL MVP candidate Sam Kerr up top in a forward tandem with veteran striker Lisa De Vanna.
Touch and go
The first half of the match started somewhat slowly, with neither team carving out truly dangerous chances in front of goal. The USA tried to move the ball on the wings, and feed service to wear Horan and Press were roaming in the middle of the field, but shots were few and far between.
Houston Dash goalkeeper Lydia Williams had a stellar night in goal for the Matildas and she kept her team in it in the early going, as the USA came out on the front foot.
However, as the half progressed, Australia looked dangerous on the counter attack, and play was very evenly balanced between the two squads, ending scoreless at the half.
The second half started similarly, though Australia seemed to grow in both confidence and possession as the minutes ticked on. By the 60th minute they were consistently pressing the Americans, and making life difficult for the USA defense (Ellis’ like-for-like substitutions throughout the second half did nothing to assuage this).
This culminated in the Australians breaking the deadlock in the 67th minute, when a scramble in the box was shot home by midfielder Tameka Butt, taking advantage of a missed clearance by Becky Sauerbrunn and some hesitation by USA keeper Alyssa Naeher. The goal seemed to shock the USWNT awake somewhat, and Rapinoe had a great look to equalize minutes after the goal, but Williams held her own and walked away from the match with a well-deserved clean sheet. Ultimately, Australia defeated the USA for the first time in their history, 1-0.
What did we learn?
While one has to expect some speed bumps and tough results in the quest to change the culture around the USWNT, one also has to be very frustrated with the lethargy with which the USA squad played this game.
One defensive mistake aside, the USA never looked like they were going to take control of this game, and the lack of cohesion within the squad was clear throughout the match.
Ellis’ personnel changes for the sake of change have not yielded this new, possession-based style that she has been promoting, and while this team was always going to have growing pains, the USA fanbase has to be growing frustrated with the new-look, toothless USWNT they’ve been witnessing in 2017.