Five takeaways after the USWNT breezes through World Cup qualifying

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Ronald Martinez
The U.S. had no problem dispatching all challengers from Concacaf, and now turn their focus towards next summer's showpiece in France

For the sixth time in seven tries, the U.S. has won the Concacaf Women’s Championship. The team also accomplished its primary objective in the tournament – sealing a spot in the 2019 Women’s World Cup – with its 6-0 semifinal victory over Jamaica.

It was a dominant tournament for Jill Ellis’ side, who were only really challenged in a 2-0 victory over Canada in Wednesday’s final, and ended the competition with 26 goals scored and zero conceded in five matches.

The tournament went about as well as could be expected for the USWNT, which is looking every bit the favorite to lift back-to-back World Cup trophies in France next summer.

Here are five takeaways from the Concacaf Women’s Championship:


Concacaf just not competitive enough


Julie Ertz USWNT Jamaica

Outside of their game against each other, the U.S. and Canada each played four matches at the Concacaf Women’s Championship. The two sides combined to win all eight games by an aggregate score of 48-1. The tournament semifinals, ostensibly pitting the top four teams in the region against one another, ended in 7-0 and 6-0 results. To put it simply, Concacaf is providing zero challenge to its two strongest sides.

It’s an indictment of the lack of investment most Concacaf nations are making in the women’s game, with many teams sending underfunded squads full of underprepared players simply looking to avoid heavy defeats. Trinidad & Tobago and Cuba, who at least based on qualification are two of the best eight teams in the region, combined to lose all six of their games by a scoreline of 43-1.

The region’s lack of development is in stark contrast to Europe, where the Netherlands and Denmark, last year’s European Championship finalists, were forced to face off in a qualifying playoff semifinal earlier this month, with the Dutch taking care of the Danes as they did in the Euro 2017 final. Europe is hardly perfect, but it is at least producing more quality sides than we’ve seen in the past. The same certainly can’t be said of Concacaf.


Lavelle shines to cement starting role


Rose Lavelle USWNT

Heading into the tournament, one of the USA’s starting places most up for grabs was the third midfield slot alongside Julie Ertz and Lindsey Horan. By the end of the tournament, though, there was a clear front-runner for that position: Rose Lavelle.

The 23-year-old injects dynamism and creativity into the U.S. attack, and cemented her status as a part of the first-choice lineup by starting all four of the matches in which Ellis used what she clearly considers her best XI, scoring three goals and adding an assist.

“She brings a little something different to our attack,” forward Tobin Heath said of Lavelle. “She’s a very unpredictable player so I think for us when we’re trying to break down teams, specifically a team that maybe sits back, she can make that clever pass or take on on the dribble. She’s more of a creative player who sees things that other players don’t see.”

As Heath noted, Lavelle is especially useful against teams that bunker in and play defensively. It’s still possible that Ellis would prefer the more defensive-minded Sam Mewis in games against some of the world’s best sides, but Lavelle has clearly taken her chance to establish herself among the USA’s starting group.


The team has found a home in a 4-3-3


Megan Rapinoe Kadeisha Buchanan USWNT Canada Concacaf 2018

Ellis experimented with different formations following her side’s shocking defeat to Sweden at the 2016 Olympics, but has clearly found the winning formula with the USA’s current 4-3-3 setup.

The U.S. lost three of its first eight matches of 2017, culminating in a 1-0 setback to Australia in July. It wasn’t long after that match that Ellis decided to switch out of the team’s 4-4-2 formation and into a 4-3-3. Fifteen months later, that Australia defeat still marks the last time the USWNT lost a match.

The team’s narrow midfield allows it to utilize outside backs Crystal Dunn and Kelley O’Hara to provide the attacking width, which they’ve done to great effect. Horan, Ertz and Lavelle have formed a dynamic midfield trio, with Ertz serving as the defensive stopper and allowing the other two to roam more freely. And fielding an attacking trio allows the U.S. to deploy Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath all in the same lineup.


World Cup roster coming into focus


USWNT

The U.S. was able to select just 20 players for its Concacaf Women’s Championship roster, in contrast to the 23 that it will take to France next summer. Though a lot can happen over the next eight months, it appears that these 20 players, plus injured duo Tierna Davidson and McCall Zerboni and third-string goalkeeper Adrianna Franch are the clear favorites to comprise Ellis’ roster for France.

Ellis has used the two years since the team’s Olympic failure to experiment with her roster, calling in 60 total players, including 29 who have been called up for the first time. The player pool has now been whittled down to the current group, which is strong from top to bottom and has very few weaknesses.


Is the U.S. peaking too early?


Alex Morgan Megan Rapinoe USWNT Concacaf 2018

The U.S. is playing so well at the moment that it’s hard to envision how Jill Ellis’ side could possibly step its game up to yet another level. The team is unbeaten in its last 26 matches (23-0-3), and has outscored its opponents 91-17 during that stretch. Though the team has destroyed some weak opponents during the unbeaten run, it has also defeated powers like Germany, Canada, England and Japan.

Of course, it’s hardly an indictment of the U.S. that it’s gone on such a run, nor is it a sign of concern, exactly. However, it is worth wondering if the team may be peaking too soon, especially with several of its veteran players like Rapinoe, Morgan and Heath arguably playing the best soccer of their entire careers.

Can this team continue its blistering pace for another nine months? Will injuries and/or a loss of form strike at the most inopportune time? These questions will likely determine whether the U.S. repeats as world champion, or simply remembers this unbeaten run wistfully in the aftermath of a World Cup disappointment.

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