Backline Chat: USWNT Friendlies, the Men’s World Cup, and Back to the NWSL

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Charles Olney (@olneyce): Alright, welcome to our slack chat for this week. Today we’re going to start with the US national team, who just finished up a pair of friendlies against China. How do people think it went?

For what it’s worth, my general takeaway is: the US still isn’t playing great, but two more wins against solid competition sure sounds a lot better than two draws or two losses.

RJ Allen (@TheSoccerCritic): I think it’s harder to say than people might want it to be because of who was out for the US. Not having maybe 5 starters/starters coming back from being hurt really makes it muddy as to what are really issues. I will say it does show how poor Ellis can be at game planning though.

Allison Cary (@findingallison): Yeah, I thought they were lucky to get the win yesterday. But they did get the win, so I guess that counts for something.

Charles Olney: Why do you say lucky to get the win, Allison? Because of the save from Harris, or a more general comment?

Allison Cary: It wasn’t far off from being a draw. I guess that was more my point. Both with China equalizing in the second half and nearly equalizing again had Harris not made that save.

Charles Olney: To my eyes, they were totally dominant in the first half, and should have had a two-goal margin (I think Ertz’s goal was onside). They struggled more in the second half, for sure. I’d say it was a pretty classic USWNT performance–good enough for the win, but not a whole lot more.

Allison Cary: Yeah, I think they generally looked like the better side in the first half. But then not finishing those chances… I mean, it doesn’t mean much to say I thought they played better if they can’t score.

(This coming from a bitter France fan).

RJ Allen: How much is “totally dominant” worth when they weren’t on the scoreboard though? I agree the US was the better side – though maybe by not as much as you do – but for most of the time it was a 1 goal or draw game.

Charles Olney: Well, like I said I think they should have been up 2-0. But this does sort of get at the larger question I wanted to ask.

I spent some time on twitter this week hyping up the US. Now admittedly that’s partly just me making the argument for the sake of making the argument, but I do think that expectations are sometimes set a little too high. So let me ask it this way: who do you think are favorites to win the World Cup?

Allison Cary: I think England is in a good position to go far.

RJ Allen: Right now my top 4 are US, England, Aussies and France.

Allison Cary: I’m a bit surprised by France, but otherwise I agree.

RJ Allen: They are at home. That gives them a boost for me.

Allison Cary: Yeah, I think they’ve hurt me too many times for me to have faith. But I hope you’re right.

Charles Olney: I think that’s a fair top 4. And I’d have a hard time drawing a clear line between those, or to exclude Germany, the Netherlands, etc. Which I think really just shows that things are pretty close at the top of the game right now. But all things being equal, it’s hard for me to say that anyone is in a MORE favorable position than the US.

Which isn’t to say that there isn’t plenty of reasons for concern about the US. But I think people need to calibrate their expectations. This is a good team, quite possibly the favorite, even accounting for their limitations.

Luis Hernandez (@radioactivclown): I’m okay with the WNT performance. Championship caliber teams find ways to win. Was it ideal? Not even close but I think there’s a lot to take away and hopefully Jill improves the squad. I was also happy to see the team get tested in a friendly. I think the team is in good position heading into the World Cup. Favored but not a favorite.

RJ Allen: The US has a lot of champagne problems and one or two big ones. The problem is people confusing the two.

Charles Olney: So let’s dial in a little before we move on. What do you see as the big problems?

RJ Allen: Morgan vs Press vs (Insert forward of your choice here) is not a real problem.

Charles Olney: I agree that the forwards just aren’t a ‘problem’ in any meaningful sense of the term. Whoever is in form this time next year is going to be one of the best strikers in the world. If it’s Morgan, great. If it’s Press, awesome. If it’s Pugh and Rapinoe, wonderful. If it’s Amy Rodriguez, amazing.

Alanna Fairbairn (@jfhobbit): I see the lack of defensive depth as being the biggest problem.

RJ Allen: I think the outside back area and maybe center midfield are the biggest problems right now. The outside backs are all hurt so Ellis is using players there that she shouldn’t and not calling up those she should. And center midfield just feels like a lack of something. An ill-fitting connection might be the best way to put it.

Charles Olney: I’d say the US’s biggest problem over the past few years has been sorting out the midfield, but would say that the issues are starting to shift backward a bit. Mostly because I’ve decided to just accept that the US isn’t going to get the sort of midfield play that I really want from them. And in that case, the group of Mewis, Ertz, Brian, Zerboni, etc. is going to ensure that we make it difficult for the other team, even if we don’t necessarily generate a ton through the center either. But that puts a lot on the fullbacks, so that really feels like the crisis point

RJ Allen: I think it was Kim McCauley who said on Twitter – maybe joking – the US should lean in the being assholes on the pitch and I’m not sure she is wrong. The US has players who can dominate and sometimes I really think they shy away from that for some reason that doesn’t benefit the team. Horan, Zerboni, O’Hara and even Morgan – among others – have the talent and the style about them that can bend teams to their will a lot more than they sometimes do.

Charles Olney: It’s a strange place for the team, which was supposedly spending the past few years developing and improving technically. We haven’t really seen much in the way of results there. But I sometimes wonder if that was just a big waste of time to even discuss.

RJ Allen: You really want to throw a team off? Like Horan, Zerboni, O’Hara and Morgan make them pay – within the laws of the game – and a lot of teams would get rattled. They half do it anyway.

Charles Olney: One final comment I’ll throw out is that I thought the second game showed a (relatively rare) example of Ellis tweaking things slightly to get good results. The setup in the first half wasn’t all that different from the previous game, but the midfield pinching in aggressively forced China to stay compact, and then Dunn on the left and Press on the right had tons of space to work. And it was pretty successful!

I think that’s a big thing to watch going forward. Now that we’re actually getting close to real games, will Ellis the tinkerer be able to plug a few holes here and there, even if she’s never going to fundamentally outwit anyone tactically.

RJ Allen: Ellis is a fine coach. She is fine. Like dry toast. She isn’t your favorite and she isn’t horrible.

Charles Olney: I’d say that’s fair.

Allison Cary: “Like dry toast” is honestly just the best comparison.

Luis Hernandex: I’m not fond of the tactics the WNT employs at times and I put that on the coach. To me that’s the biggest problem. I’m just convinced Jill is gone after the World Cup. I’d also like the US to better develop fullbacks. I’d also like to see us develop a true number 10. So yeah youth development? Even though we just had the U-17 win the CONCACAF tournament.


Charles Olney: Alright, so we can set the national team aside for a bit. They won’t be back until the Tournament of Nations, and we can devote our attention elsewhere. Mostly to the NWSL, but there’s also another big event going on this summer that I think we should touch on at least for a moment here: the men’s World Cup.

It’s the biggest event in world sports, and while we focus on women’s soccer, obviously, I’m guessing that some of us will have at least an eye on it.

So: who will be watching?

Alanna Fairbairn: I will be, when I’m not out of town and easy streaming range. I’m nominally rooting for Iceland because I love a good underdog story

RJ Allen: I would like Iceland to win because their men’s and women’s coaches help each out during majors and I think that’s the coolest thing.

Allison Cary: I’m excited about it. Especially being in England, and London specifically. It’ll be really cool to see how the people here get into it.

Charles Olney: For myself, it’s going to be a strange experience. I think I watched 90% or more of the games in the last four cups, but I’m pretty much checking out of this one. I’m just beyond sick of FIFA’s corruption, and while the Qatar cup is the true moral travesty, Russia is hardly a great place to plant your flag, either. So I’m going to grudgingly watch a few matches here and there, but mostly trying to just let it slide past.

I’ll certainly watch the Mexico games, and root for them.

And I’ll be hoping for Messi to get the title he deserves, so we can finally put to rest all the ‘you can’t be the GOAT without a title’ talk.

RJ Allen: Is Messi the short one or the tall one?

Charles Olney: The short one.

RJ Allen: I am putting a moral pox on him until that federation gives anything approximating a damn about their women’s team. You shouldn’t be able to enter the men’s world cup if you don’t have or fund well your women’s team.

Alanna Fairbairn: That would be a interesting political squabble to watch, if FIFA started requiring that.

Charles Olney: I’d support it. It’s a drop in the bucket. They could all pay it.

Luis Hernandez: I’m going to watch every men’s World Cup match. I have my bracket filled out. Just looking forward to seeing good soccer. Not having a horse in the race, I have Germany winning it again going back to back. I can’t root for Mexico.

Charles Olney: Alright, one final question about the boys side of things: any thoughts about the announcement that the joint bid will be hosting the 2026 cup? Will that have any effect on the women’s side of things?

Alanna Fairbairn: I would hope the main effect is an uptick in good soccer stadiums to play in. As well as general sport visibility

Allison Cary: If it really grows support for the game in the U.S the way people think it will, it’s possible we could also carry some of those fans over into the women’s game. But that may be wishful thinking.

RJ Allen: I do think one thing that might change is a few teams that play in football/soccer places might end up getting new places to play.

Charles Olney: In general, I’m a proponent of ‘the rising tide lifts all boats’ theory, so more interest in the game overall will be good. But I’m also a believer in ‘people won’t put resources toward the women’s game unless you hold their feet to the fire, and maybe not even then’ so the effect might not be nearly as big as we’d hope.

Alanna Fairbairn: I would hope that USSF does some PR around the women’s team. Like when the did they One Nation, One Team bit around the 2015 Women’s World Cup to bring people in. Actively go for more fan crossover.

Charles Olney: I hope so, too, but wouldn’t hold my breath for it.

Luis Hernandez: I’m hoping to live to see the World Cup in 2026. Kidding. Kinda. I hope it grows the game even more for the nation and allow our host partners to give us a pass politically. Plus can we also host the Women’s World Cup now? Please.

RJ Allen: We’ve hosted it twice. I don’t think the US should until at least after 2027. I’d love England to get a WWC.

Alanna Fairbairn: That would be brilliant. Way better summer climate too

Allison Cary: That would be fun.


Charles Olney: Okay, final topic: the NWSL will be starting back up again this weekend. Any games that have people particularly excited? Any storylines you’re watching for?

Alanna Fairbairn: So for this weekend, I will be interested to see who of the internationals come back from their break hyped and ready to go, and who comes back exhausted and needing a rest

I noticed that even Megan Rapinoe on her Instagram story was mentioning how stinking long the US camp was this go around.

Charles Olney: I’d say the most important game of the weekend is Chicago-Portland. Both teams will REALLY want a win there, given their struggles so far.

Allison Cary: Yeah, that could be a really defining match if either team can walk away with three points (Portland and Chicago).

RJ Allen: I think Portland is the better team but that doesn’t mean they win.

Charles Olney: I’m certainly curious about when and if Chicago starts to get some of their players back. DiBernardo and Short are supposedly close. Morgan Brian is back in the States and they still have her rights. If they could add those three players in the next week or two, that could make a HUGE difference.

Or it could disrupt the things that were just starting to gel.

Either way, it should be very interesting to follow.

Alanna Fairbairn: I think if DiBernardo is still out, Brian could be an interesting addition to the midfield. She’s at least healthy and well rested now. But it depends on if she decides to stay or requests somewhere else.

Charles Olney: My read on her performance for the NT is that whatever ‘injuries’ she had in France were more a matter of minor setbacks than anything serious. She didn’t look more ready than she did back in April, but didn’t look worse, either. I wouldn’t want to count on her yet, but it could be a big addition if they work it carefully.

RJ Allen: Morgan Brian holds very little possibility for me until she proves she can be healthy long term. See also Lavelle, Rose.

Allison Cary: Yeah, I don’t know that I’d expect to see Brian right away. And I agree with RJ: the injuries thing is critical.

Alanna Fairbairn: And possibly Pugh on that list too, with the injury she picked up in camp

Charles Olney: On a similar note, Julie Ertz still doesn’t look 100% to me, and I’m curious how long it will taker her to get completely right. That could be another huge question for them. Basically: Chicago could be one of the best teams in the league or a continuing disaster over the next month. We have no idea!

Allison Cary: Yep.

Charles Olney: Thoughts about Orlando-Sky Blue? Obviously Orlando are favorites, but Sky Blue has looked a LITTLE bit better. And they have to win at some point. Is it this weekend? And what are they going to do with Carli Lloyd?

Alanna Fairbairn: Rest her and put her in as a super sub. It is time for Lloyd to go the way of Wambach; if she refuses to leave, cut her minutes and give her a chance at the end of the game to add a tally or two to her record.

RJ Allen: They will lose and Reddy will say it is bad luck.

Charles Olney: I have a sneaking suspicion that they pull this one out, but RJ’s clear-eyed cynicism is probably more accurate than my sneaking suspicion.

RJ Allen: You also thought North Carolina were going to get the L in Houston. And while it was a draw it was not a win for H-Town.

Charles Olney: They were so close though!

RJ Allen: Close only counts in hand grenades and horseshoes.

Allison Cary: To be fair, I thought there was a chance Houston might win that match. But I don’t think Sky Blue get the win here. Maybe a draw, if the Pride are having an off day (which is entirely possible).

Alanna Fairbairn: Thus why I’m excited that Houston got Polkinghorne, so she can hopefully help to plug up the defensive holes. And they can maybe defend for longer than 75 minutes a match

RJ Allen: With Polkinghorne in, Brooks to the midfield?

Alanna Fairbairn: Maybe? Or possibly Polkinghorne could be a partner for Chapman on the outside

Charles Olney: I’m certainly curious to see how that affects their backline. I’m a known Van Wyk critic (though I think she’s improved a lot of late), so I’d start to phase her out a bit. But I’ve learned to not try to anticipate what Vera Pauw will do.

Alanna Fairbairn: I do think Brooks to a holding midfield spot is also a possibility. Simply because they just lost Mewis, and they need someone to hold it down in the midfield so Daly and Ohai can do what they do

Charles Olney: I think whatever happens will be an interesting indicator of how Pauw ultimately sees the team. They could play all three of their center backs and get a more solid backline, but sacrifice some attacking potential. Is that a trade Pauw wants to make? Or move Brooks up? I have a hard time seeing them keep the juggling act alive without a stronger support structure in the central midfield, but I’ve been wrong so far.

Luis Hernandez: With the two year anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting on the 12th and the club having Pride night with a fundraiser to LGBT charities, I’ll be looking forward to the Orlando/SB match. It should boost everything for the Pride and hopefully the attendance number will not disappoint. I’m also looking forward to the first NWSL match on ESPN News.