The U.S. Women’s National Team will open their 2017 She Believes Cup play today against the current Olympic Gold medal winners and #2-ranked Germany. The last time these two teams faced each other was at the inaugural She Believes Cup on March 9th of last year.
At the Boca Raton match in 2016, the US won 2-1 against the German team, under then-coach Silvia Neid. German striker Anja Mittag scored the first goal of the match in the 30th minute, but two goals from the US–Morgan at 37′ and an unassisted goal from Sam Mewis in the 42′, only her second international goal in all–put the US on top. The victory against Germany was the US’s last opponent of the three-game tournament and put them at the top of the table, giving them the historic first title in the homegrown tourney.
But the teams that will take the pitch later today are quite different than those who squared off last year, and the US might find themselves with an uphill climb against Steffi Jones’s lineup.
The USSF is marketing this game as a major meet-up between a World Champion (obviously touting the US with their 2015 WWC victory) and an Olympic Champion, and while semantically accurate, factually, the USWNT is not playing anywhere near the level they did in Canada during the summer of 2015. Retirements, injuries, and suspensions have affected the lineup, first and foremost. Major names such as Wambach, Boxx, Cheney, Rampone, Solo, and Rapinoe are absent from the 23-player roster put out by the USWNT.
Of course, in their place are new names, names that we are becoming familiar with, as new players are rotated into the pool and evaluated. Mallory Pugh, coming off her time with the US’s U-20 World Cup team, has already made her bones on the senior level; Casey Short performed well at her first caps with the senior team back in October; Lynn Williams came onto the pitch for her first cap against Switzerland in October and scored within a minute. But while these younger players are performing well, they have never faced a team of Germany’s caliber before and their ability to play-make and adapt on the field when up against significant threat is yet unknown.
Another issue for the US is the strategic changes that have been made since the 2015 WWC victory. Despite all the recognition Carli Lloyd received for her impressive performance in the final against Japan, the real MVP of the USWNT’s World Cup drive were the five players in the back–the “Department of Defense” that included Hope Solo, Ali Krieger, Julie Johnston, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Meghan Klingenberg. Their ability to break down any offensive threat that came their way–keeping Solo from even having to make more than a few attempts at a save–is what gave the midfield and attacking players the freedom to hunt down opportunities to score. But after their disappointing loss in Rio, coach Jill Ellis has consistently put out a three-back defensive line that, at best, has been seen mediocre success.
It was a good experiment in the aftermath of being knocked out in their quarter-final match against Sweden. Look, something had to change, that’s undeniable. International play around the world has progressed so well that the US’s old stand-by, physical condition and throwing Abby Wambach or the other forwards toward the opposing goal with no plan but “shoot until you hit the net,” isn’t going to work anymore. Sweden’s refusal to engage the US offensively worked. But the three-back? It has not. Despite the scorelines at the six post-Rio friendlies the team hosted last year, it has not worked. Mostly because, at her core, Allie Long is not a centerback, she doesn’t possess the tactical perspective (the kind of thinking that sees six moves ahead in a chess game) to play in the center, and she’s easily out-maneuvered or misled by opposing offensive players. And Becky Sauerbrunn is not a rightback, she’s a brilliant player but she lacks the speed necessary to track back in an instant to help out Long when the converted CB inevitably finds herself in trouble.
But even though they are perhaps the stronger team, Germany too faces a few obstacles in their She Believes journey. First of all, they are still adjusting to new leadership, as Steffi Jones has replaced the retired Silvia Neid. It hasn’t seemed to affect their play, however, as they sailed through their EURO 2017 qualifiers (including a 4-0 victory against the Russian Women’s team, whom the US will host in two friendlies later this spring) and other recent friendlies. Yet, while they’ve lost key players from the last cycle as well, their younger players–including Sara Däbritz, Leonie Maier, Dzsenifer Maroszán, Anja Mittag, Lena Petermann, and Alexandra Popp–have played for or earned titles at the youth and senior levels, including the 2013 UEFA Women’s Euro (won), the 2014 U-20 Women’s World Cup (won), the 2015 Women’s World Cup, and the 2016 Olympics in Rio (won).
No matter what the obstacles, however, the US and Germany will ultimately give us some excellent international women’s soccer to watch (and if you ask me, it’s about damn time).