She Believes: USWNT v England

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Saturday’s meeting between the US and England women’s teams should be quite the match. England, coming off a heartbreaking 2-1 loss to France on Wednesday, March 1, will be fighting to get themselves back in the tournament, while the US, after beating Germany 1-0 later that day, will look to build up their goal differential in anticipation of a tight race for the top position on the tourney table. Currently, France leads the table thanks to their two goals scored, followed by the US, England, and Germany.

The teams have not met since last year’s She Believes Cup, where Crystal Dunn scored the game’s only goal in the 72nd minute off an assist from Meghan Klingenberg. Dunn, of course, is expected to play in the upcoming match, which will pit her against new Chelsea L.F.C. teammates Karen Carney (F) and Millie Bright (D). Klingenberg has been hampered by injury and was not named to this year’s US roster. But while Dunn has performed at a high rate since last March, she may not be the biggest threat to England’s chances this year. Instead, Christen Press and newcomer to the Senior Team, Lynn Williams, will likely give the English defenders and goalkeeper a run for their money. Williams scored the US’s game-winning (and only) goal against Germany on Wednesday, and Press continues to run circles around the players between her and the net, finding opportunities to shoot—or creating them out of thin air when any other player might be stymied by a lack of openings.

But if the US needs to fix anything before they take the field on Saturday, it’s the midfield, which looked more than a little lost Wednesday night. Carli Lloyd doesn’t trust the backline, that much is obvious by the way she played back when both her coach and the flow of the game should have seen her move forward to support the forwards. Multiple times, Lloyd was called over to the sideline by Ellis and told to play higher, but she couldn’t seem to break free of the midfield line. Dunn and Heath were essentially neutralized by the German team, and Brian and Mewis couldn’t seem to get themselves organized in the lateral or side-by-side formation (rather than the older one forward, one back midfielder structure) Ellis had them in.  Not to mention that as per the US Women’s usual style of play, they were basically cut out of the game entirely, with the backline sending balls far down the field (and often too far forward or into empty space) for the attacking players to collect and send into goal. Rarely did the US take the opportunity to build play from the backline, through the midfield, and to the forwards. Sooner, rather than later, this will be the source of their downfall.

Another question for the US is who will be taking the field in the keeper’s kit. Alyssa Naeher earned her 11th cap on Wednesday night and managed a shutout, with at least one extremely impressive save. But as of yet there is still a question—acknowledged by the coaches even—of who is their starting GK. Ashlyn Harris is an obvious contender, and at the moment, rookie Jane Campbell is also in play. Harris, also with 11 caps, is a bit of a riskier choice, as even in friendlies she’s sometimes been caught off her line and is mostly used to playing with the older four-player backline. If England shows up to play as hungry for a win as they were earlier this week, with their forwards and midfield pressing hard and making great runs and crosses into the box, Harris could find herself in trouble. Campbell is the least likely to find a start during this tournament, but if Ellis truly wants to get her some experience against a top-ten team, who knows? I certainly have more faith in her than I do in the three-back, so…

England, of course, suffers from no lack of talent. But the real question that the Lionesses have to answer is about their endurance. Yes, they came out strong against France on Wednesday, and they led for long enough that fans began to think they might not only win but shut out the French. But when they came back after the half, their first-half high-energy press and attacking strategy seemed to be their undoing. They played the second 45 minutes looking much slower and a little lethargic. The US has consistently been one of the most athletic teams in the world of women’s football, and when all else fails, it’s been their fitness that has driven them to success.

But more important than any one game of soccer, Saturday’s match will pay homage to one of the biggest names in US soccer, men’s and women’s. Christie (Pearce) Rampone, twenty-year veteran of the USWNT has retired from national team duty, and the team is set to honor her long and noteworthy career in the state she calls home. No matter what the outcome, it will be an event to remember.