The U.S. women’s national team kicked off the SheBelieves Cup with a 2-2 draw over Japan on Wednesday night at Talen Energy Stadium.
Jill Ellis’ side entered the game missing two of its most vital performers: Lindsey Horan had been ruled out prior to the tournament with a quad injury, while Becky Sauerbrunn was on the bench but was held out with a minor knee problem.
The U.S. clearly felt those two absences and conceded a late equalizer from Yuka Momiki on a night where they were far from their best.
Here are three observations from the USWNT's draw against Japan.
Horan's absence clearly felt
Ellis provided a surprise before kickoff when she named Mallory Pugh in her starting lineup as a central midfielder. Pugh, who normally plays as a winger, took the role of the injured Horan. With more like-for-like options in McCall Zerboni and Sam Mewis left on the bench, the U.S. had Pugh next to her club teammate and roommate Rose Lavelle in the center of the park, with Julie Ertz behind them as the No. 6.
The results were certainly mixed. Pugh and Lavelle predictably got themselves into attacking positions consistently, but neither were able to find the final ball as often as they would have liked. The U.S. clearly missed Horan’s ability to connect defense to attack, and neither Pugh or Lavelle gave the U.S. the calmness and tidiness in possession that Horan provides.
Megan Rapinoe, who scored the game’s first goal, admitted that the U.S. is still figuring things out in the midfield without Horan, alluding to the fact that the team missed her two-way play.
“I think she’s getting there, I wouldn’t say she’s ready [for the World Cup] right now. I don’t even know how you say if you’re ready or not,” Rapinoe said of Lavelle.
“I think it’s imperative for the midfield in general to control the game, both offensively and defensively, set tempo and really set the tone for the team and I think we’re still working on nailing that down."
Press provides another injection of dynamism
Christen Press was the team’s clear star in its two friendlies last month, as the 30-year-old put in a dynamic display against France before scoring the game’s only goal against Spain. If those performances didn’t lead to calls for Press to start over either Tobin Heath or Megan Rapinoe, they at least served as a reminder of the strength in depth the U.S. has in attack.
Press was at it again on Wednesday, making an immediate impact off the bench when she was put in the game in the 76th minute. It took Press less than a minute to receive the ball, beat her marker, and play in a cross that Alex Morgan chested in from close range.
“Something you look at when you go into a World Cup is your depth and your players that change the game,” Ellis said in her post-game press conference. “[Press] was obviously great in the Spain game, made a difference there.
“She’s posing a lot of challenges now in terms of selection because I thought she was just an instant game-changer for us.”
With Lavelle and Pugh not at their best on Wednesday, one wonders if Ellis will find a way to get Press into her starting lineup against England on Saturday.
Another lackluster performance
If one is an aberration, then three is certainly a trend. The U.S. started 2019 slowly with a loss to France and a narrow 1-0 win at Spain last month. Wednesday made it three straight games that the USWNT wasn’t at its best.
Though she did acknowledge her team had some hiccups that led to goals, Ellis insisted that she was happy with her team’s performance on the night.
"The result? Disappointing for sure,” Ellis said. “The performance in both halves, I thought there was some really good things.
“I thought we played as a team, we made two mistakes in the back that cost us, for sure we left things on the table but in terms of our team play, what I asked the team to do defensively, the work ethic, attacking – we got in their goal zone 34 times.”
The U.S. did have 13 shots and six on goal to Japan’s five and two, but in the end they were unable to get the result. Though performance is more important than results right now, the SheBelieves Cup is set up in a four-team round-robin style similar to a World Cup group stage, and the U.S. is obviously using the tournament as a simulation for the World Cup this summer.
“I think we have to understand in a tournament setting the importance of winning and how we accomplish that in a game like this,” Heath said. “Obviously [we learned] a lot of good lessons, Japan is a quality team no matter who they put out, they play their system really really well, they’re so disciplined. We’re going to learn from it.”
Rapinoe, as she normally does, had her own way of processing her team's performance and the late equalizer it conceded.
“Overall I think there are a lot of good things we can take from it. I thought we created some good chances and obviously outside of the two goals they didn’t have a lot of other chances," Rapinoe said.
“I think we can take a lot from that but at the end of the day it’s about results, and the great and sh*tty thing about soccer is you only need one shot.”