The U.S. defeated South Africa 3-0 in the first game of their three-match send-off series on Sunday, but it was hardly a vintage performance for Jill Ellis’ side.
South Africa offered almost nothing in the way of goal threats, but the U.S. failed to capitalize on numerous chances and several of the team’s top attackers were uncharacteristically wasteful. Two late goals did add some gloss to the scoreline, but it could have been much more.
Ellis isn’t going to fret too much about Sunday’s game, but she will want to see improvement with just two games remaining before the World Cup kicks off next month.
As the USWNT looks ahead to games against New Zealand and Mexico, let’s look back at some talking points from the win over South Africa.
O'Hara makes surprise start
Before Sunday’s game, starting right back Kelley O’Hara indicated she’d be worked back into the USWNT rotation slowly after an ankle injury, saying: “It’s about being ready for June 11" (the team’s World Cup opener).
O’Hara suffered a setback in her recovery from ankle surgery last fall, missing the team’s April friendlies before making her return to the field with two substitute appearances for the Utah Royals at the end of April.
So it came as a surprise to see the 30-year-old thrust right into the starting lineup against South Africa on Sunday. O’Hara appeared no worse for the wear, getting up and down the right side as she usually does while playing the first half. Her halftime substitution was planned, but it was still an encouraging 45 minutes for O'Hara.
U.S. wasteful in attack
The U.S. had plenty of chances to make the scoreline bigger than it was, but the offensive juggernaut we’ve seen in 2019 was often missing on Sunday.
Though it created plenty of advantageous situations in the final third, the team’s final ball went missing far too often, with Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan and Christen Press – three of the team’s most effective players in 2019 so far – guilty of wasting numerous chances.
"I think we were pretty stagnant and played very slow today, which played into their hands," Megan Rapinoe said after the game. "They man-mark a lot and they’re a very strong, athletic team, very quick, so we didn’t really cause them that many problems to be honest."
The USWNT had scored 18 goals in seven matches leading up to Sunday, so the South Africa can go down as an aberration for the time being. Ellis will want to see an improved attacking display against New Zealand on Thursday, however.
South Africa a useful opponent
This match was a useful exercise for a U.S. side that will have multiple games at the World Cup against teams who will take South Africa’s bunker-and-counter approach.
Thailand and Chile will undoubtedly sit deep in the USWNT’s first two group-stage games, and Sweden will likely do the same after successfully using that strategy to shockingly knock the U.S. out of the 2016 Olympics.
Ellis had Sweden on her mind in her post-game press conference.
"When Sweden did it in the Olympics it left a mark on me," Ellis said. "We've got to make sure we have players that can break teams down because there’s no space in behind, we need to problem-solve in a different way."
The U.S. looks to press its opposition, especially against teams that bunker in. Ellis' side was successful in its pressing on Sunday, snuffing out several South Africa attacks long before they had a chance to develop while also creating some dangerous chances of their own with turnovers high up the pitch.
But as we’ve seen against better sides, the U.S. press can be detrimental to its cause. More skillful teams can slice open the USWNT’s three-player midfield and make life extremely tough for its defense.
Ellis must vary her approach in France, knowing that the high-pressing style that is so effective against teams like South Africa may backfire against more skillful opponents.
Mewis makes her offensive case
Though Ellis appears set with Julie Ertz, Rose Lavelle and Lindsey Horan as her preferred midfield trio, Sam Mewis made a statement on Sunday by scoring two goals.
Lavelle has been preferred to Mewis due to her superior offensive game, as Ellis emphasizes her team’s attacking side. But on Sunday, Mewis showed she can be an effective attacker in her own right.
"She’s a dynamic player that can impact a game," Ellis said. "When you go to a World Cup, in midfield you need to have players who can score from distance, who can get in the box and obviously play-make."
Mewis offers far more defensively than Lavelle, and her two-way play can allow Ertz more freedom to roam. Many have called for Mewis to start at the World Cup and Sunday’s display will do little to quiet those voices.