Seeing the U.S. national team on the back foot has always been a rare occurrence. But in 2017, Jill Ellis' side has found easy sledding hard to come by.
That can largely be chalked up to the stiff opposition, with the top-ranked Americans scheduling matches against 10 nations in FIFA's top 15. One can also point to the experimental player selection and tactics brought on by an off-year without a major competition.
But with qualifying for the 2019 World Cup in France now less than a year away, Ellis has started to push away from that narrative. As the U.S. traveled to Vancouver to face rival Canada on Thursday, the World Cup-winning coach picked a lineup and formation that sure looked like her first choice when taking player availability and fitness into account.
So there are some real issues to work out after that physical 1-1 draw at BC Place. While Alex Morgan gave the U.S. a 30th-minute lead with a something-out-of-nothing strike, there wasn't much cohesive play in the first half. When Canada equalized in the 56th minute through a scrappy Adriana Leon tally, it was a deserved development. And it was the home side that dictated large swaths of the match after halftime, coming closest to scoring a winner when Maegan Kelly struck the post late.
Rebecca Quinn with two chances off Beckie's corner, header then shot off the bar, ball falls and guess who? Leon scores to equalize!! https://t.co/p8Ez9Ypnec — Canada Soccer (@CanadaSoccerEN) November 10, 2017
To Canada's credit, John Herdman had his side set a frantic tempo by deploying a high press that the U.S. struggled to unlock. Although defensive midfielder Julie Ertz dropped deep to offer support, Samantha Mewis and Lindsey Horan — the other two midfielders in Ellis' 4-3-3 — struggled to find gaps and provide that much-needed outlet. When they did find themselves in possession, they were frequently forced to play one-touch passes into pressure or send errant long balls.
The second-half introductions of Carli Lloyd — who is still working her way back to full fitness after a foot injury — and Andi Sullivan gave the group renewed energy in midfield, and it's worth noting potential starters Morgan Brian and Rose Lavelle remain sidelined. But Mewis and Horan are very much staples of the squad, and they'll need to learn from Thursday's growing pains if the U.S. wants to control games against top opponents.
Here are two more thoughts from the U.S. team's friendly against Canada:
Tough test for Dahlkemper
Ertz's move to midfield has helped facilitate a meteoric rise for Abby Dahlkemper, who earned her ninth straight start alongside Becky Sauerbrunn in central defense Thursday. All things considered, the 24-year-old has looked the part.
But Dahlkemper didn't have her best match against Canada, falling victim to several over-the-top balls that exposed the seam between her and the right back. She also seemed to get caught ball watching on the equalizer, though it would be disingenuous to pin responsibility for that chaotic sequence on any one player.
The freshly minted NWSL Defender of the Year remains an enticing option, and her increasing chemistry with Sauerbrunn is a positive. That said, let's manage expectations for a player who does remain a work in progress.
O'Hara comes up big in the back
For the longest time, Kelley O'Hara faced the classic dilemma of a utility player. If you're the primary backup at a variety of positions, how can you make your case to start at any one spot?
Now those days are behind her. Longtime starters Ali Krieger and Meghan Klingenberg are being phased out of the fullback corps, with the youthful likes of Casey Short, Sofia Huerta and Taylor Smith entering the fold. A veteran of a 100-plus caps, the 29-year-old O'Hara is the grizzled veteran at outside back.
She gamely filled that role Thursday, using her recovery speed to put out fires (helping out Dahlkemper) while repeatedly putting her body on the line. Her versatility paid dividends as well, with O'Hara starting the match at right back before seamlessly switching to the left side in the second half. On nights like this, it's easy to see how she's finally earned her spot.