Armchair Centerback: Three Thoughts from the USA vs Mexico Friendlies

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The two friendlies this week against Mexico weren’t the highest quality games the US has ever played. The shape wasn’t always compact and both defense and goalkeeping left something to be desired. But these games did show us that when players are “on” they can still be a delight to watch. Here are three thoughts on the US vs Mexico matches. 


The History of Goalkeeper Management Is Catching Up to the USWNT

The US is bad at creating the conditions for world class goalkeepers to be born. At the same time, they’ve also had some of the best goalkeepers in the history of the women’s game. With Briana Scurry and Hope Solo, it’s more that they overcome the underlying conditions than it is any real indication of success in the way goalkeepers are handled in this country. The mismanagement of the current crop—from who is being called in, to who is being capped, to the scarcity of substitutions—is making that very clear.

Scurry and Solo were able to overcome those difficulties because they were generational-quality keepers. Simple stuff, really. But Alyssa Naeher, Ashlyn Harris and Jane Campbell aren’t that lucky. They have each had minutes for the USWNT since Solo’s messy departure. While Ellis has put the most faith (and pressure) on Naeher’s shoulders, it hasn’t quite worked out the way that many expected. She certainly hasn’t locked up the position. In the rare minutes she gets, Harris has been competent if not stellar. And this week, Campbell used her first start to concede twice on corners while standing inside of goal.

Not stellar no matter how you cut it.

Abby Smith and AD Franch are both options that Ellis should look at before she runs out of pre-France minutes. After the last few matches, there is no reason to bank heavily on a return in Naeher’s form, nor would it be safe to treat either backup as ready for primetime. Why not bring in some healthy competition?


The Triple-Edged Sword Reborn

The Triple-Edged Sword was the name given to the attacking trio of Michelle Akers, Carin Jennings-Gabarra and April Heinrichs during the 1991 Women’s World Cup. Alex Morgan, Mallory Pugh and Megan Rapinoe look like they might be aiming to take that nickname for themselves.

Morgan finished the international break with four goals and one assist. Pugh notched two goals. And Rapinoe got an impressive one goal and five assists. The only goal the trio didn’t have a hand in was Carli Lloyd’s Lindsey Horan-assisted goal in the first game.

The three have looked sharp for the national team and with their NWSL clubs. If they can keep this energy up when the likes of Julie Ertz and Sam Mewis rejoin the midfield it could be a windfall for the team. It also puts less pressure on Tobin Heath when she returns. She won’t be the only source of creativity on the field. 


This Defense Is Just Fine.

Ellis wants the ability to go high and low with her outside backs. And after some thinkpieces and a minor freak out on the internet over Crystal Dunn being on the backline for these games, we saw some evidence that suggests it just might work.

Dunn was able to get into the attack nearly as much as if she were a winger. In the second game the mix of Davidson, Sauerbrunn and Sonnett was a fairly balanced and dynamic three-back when Dunn pushed up.

This won’t be the only setup that the USWNT plays, and it shouldn’t be. Very few teams are truly settled, with just one settled backline, one defensive unit, or one unitary style. Having players like Dunn and Kelley O’Hara who can line up on the left or right and on the backline or in the midfield gives Ellis the chance to play a back four, a modified back three or even pull back the wingbacks for a five-woman defense. What’s more, she can do it without making a bunch of substitutions thanks to a lot of flexibility in the individual players.

Having Sauerbrunn on the field is a huge advantage here, which we saw again this week. Her ability to teach in real time—giving Sonnett, Dahlkemper and Davidson room to learn without just stepping in for them—is exceptional. And remember, they’re missing some key players. When O’Hara comes back into the mix, she’ll provide a bit more experience about precisely when to push and when to hold back. Over time, we should see trust building and players working together as a more integrated unit.