More questions – and some answers: What we learned from the USWNT's SheBelieves Cup triumph

ISI Photos-Brad Smith

Performances were a mixed bag. Injuries were a big factor. Two teenagers starred. What did we learn about the U.S. women in one of their biggest pre-World Cup tests?

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The U.S. women’s national team first-place finish among four of the world’s top six teams at the 2018 SheBelieves Cup is a stark improvement from last place in 2017, which ended with an embarrassing thrashing at the hands of France.

The Americans’ victory in the 2018 version, with four potential (almost certainly) starters at home due to injury, is an encouraging sign. Granted, each of the four teams dealt with injury and did some level of experimenting with their rosters. But three of these teams are semifinalists from the 2015 World Cup, which the U.S. won, and this quartet was more difficult than any of the six groups will be come summer 2019.

Essentially, this was a World Cup knockout-round simulation, and the Americans came out on top. It certainly wasn’t all pretty, with a couple of good-not-great performances sandwiching an ugly draw against France. U.S. coach Jill Ellis will have learned a few important things at this tournament – but she is left with plenty of questions, too.

QUESTION: What to make of the midfield?

Sam Mewis’ absence was sorely felt over this seven-day stretch. Ellis rolled out three slightly different midfield trios in each of the matches, and none were overly convincing. The Julie Ertz-Lindsey Horan-Carli Lloyd combination in the tournament-opening victory over Germany was the most encouraging of the bunch, and it reaffirmed that Ertz’s presence is irreplaceable. She was withheld from the other matches as a precaution due to what U.S. Soccer called “a few minor knocks,” and her absence was felt.

Horan and Morgan Brian struggled mightily in the 1-1 draw against France in a much different setup, which asked Andi Sullivan to play as a particularly deep-lying midfielder to allow for width from the fullbacks. The setup stretched thin Horan and Brian, who were largely played around and over by the back line. Lloyd and Horan were joined by surprise starter Allie Long in the 1-0 win over England to clinch the tournament.

Of major concern for the U.S. is its inability to play through the middle of the park throughout the tournament. Much of the Americans’ success came from Sullivan (against France) or center back Abby Dahlkemper finding a forward with a big diagonal ball. There were few attacks to speak of which built up through the spine of the pitch, and, often, there were puzzling tactical asks of the midfield, including leaving Lloyd and Brian to cover the entire middle of the park for a time while trying to kill off the England match in a five-back look.

Mewis and Ertz saw their stocks rise the most this tournament by way of absence.

ANSWER: Tierna Davidson is the real deal

Tierna Davidson is 19 years old, has a whopping four senior caps – all in 2018 – and looked more than comfortable playing full matches against three of the world’s best teams.

Ellis entered this tournament knowing that she would not have her best and most consistent defender: captain Becky Sauerbrunn. Ellis said ahead of time that she would be giving Davidson significant playing time to see how she dealt with this level of competition, and the Stanford sophomore emphatically announced her arrival. Along with Mallory Pugh, Davidson was the team’s most consistent player throughout the tournament.

Barring some ridiculous turn of fate due to injuries, Sauerbrunn is a sure-fire starter for the 2019 World Cup. Her central partner – particularly with Ertz’s emergence as a defensive midfield option – is very much TBD. Dahlkemper still has plenty to prove and is not drastically more experienced at the international level than Davidson, having only claimed a regular place on the team six months earlier.

Davidson showed as much as anyone that she is capable of playing at the 2019 World Cup.

QUESTION: How concerning is the fullback position?

Look, we’ve known for a while that the fullback position is wide-open. The ebb and flow of form for those in the position continued at the SheBelieves Cup.

Taylor Smith had a wonderful 2017 in the NWSL and deservedly emerged as a potential starter for the U.S. Her performance against France – when she was removed before halftime and Ellis said afterward that she “probably should have made that substitution 10 minutes earlier” as she struggled to deal with the French overload – may have undone just about all of that. World Cup starting roles can’t be won a year out, but they might just be lost.

Kelley O’Hara remains the best option at fullback. Casey Short’s injury forced the return of Crystal Dunn to the position, and she handled nicely the full 90 there against England. Given the competition up top and the lack of answers at fullback, she may have played herself back into that role by necessity.

ISI Photos-Brad Smith

ISI Photos-Brad Smith

Is bringing back Meghan Klingenberg the answer? By all accounts, struggles with illness hurt her earlier in the year, so she should soon get another look. Could Sofia Huerta have used more time in this tournament? Perhaps, but it’s worth reminding again that we don’t see these players in training, where so many impressions are made. Is Casey Short – assuming she is healthy – the next best option? Ellis has the Tournament of Nations this summer as her last truly elite-level tournament to figure it out before France 2019.

ANSWER: Mallory Pugh needs to start

Yes, Tobin Heath and Rose Lavelle were missing. And Pugh’s free play, while certainly unique in its own right, fits into a similar style as those two. But Pugh was the United States’ most dangerous player throughout the tournament. She nearly single-handedly won the England game in her 1-v-1 matchup with Demi Stokes, which she dominated, and the 19-year-old’s energy and pace is unrivaled on a U.S. team which wants to high press (and looks its best when doing so).

Pugh didn’t have a cap before 2016. She played her way onto the Olympic team and proved in 2017 why she will be around a long time. Now, in 2018, it feels silly to even be referencing her age; it’s an aside. She is exceptional, and she stood out again this tournament.

QUESTION: Would performance have improved with the injured players available?

This one is hypothetical, and we’ve addressed the midfield and Mewis (as well as Sauerbrunn) already. But it’s worth noting again that the U.S. won this tournament despite the absence of so many important players. The draw with France was ugly, the win over England was not overly convincing and the victory over Germany was a solid, professional – even if unspectacular – performance. Not overwhelming? Sure. But the Americans took seven points off three of the world’s top teams, without several of their best players. That’s a big positive, no matter how you spin it.

ANSWER: Alyssa Naeher is the starting goalkeeper

Naeher was fine in this tournament – no major mistakes, no massively memorable saves. She made the saves she needed to when called upon. And Ellis & Co. will be happy with that, because playing her in all three matches makes it clear that she has assumed the No. 1 spot after a so-so 2017 that saw a semi-open competition for the role.

QUESTION: Should we be concerned about tactics?

Credit Ellis for experimenting, at least – not just now, but since the 2016 Olympics. The three-back was a creative attempt in 2016 and into 2017, and it was rightfully abandoned after it imploded at last year’s SheBelieves Cup.

At the 2018 edition, Ellis tried tactical tweaks in the middle of the park as she rotated personnel, but none of them were truly convincing. Combine that with her affirmation that she is very happy with her core (read: sticking with this group at large) and it’s a wonder what the best setup for this team is. Much like it felt with the three-back, the idea isn’t so bad  – it’s that the personnel don’t match up to their expected roles.

At this tournament, Horan was asked to take on more defensive responsibilities than she should have been. Brian and Lloyd were stretched thin in different roles – Lloyd suddenly not in her optimal false nine role, since the 4-3-3 doesn’t allow for it with less cover.

There was hardly any wide play to speak of in the middle of the park, which goes back to bypassing the midfield. And it also speaks to the fullbacks’ struggles to get into the attack, which the U.S. wants to be a staple of its game.

If this is Ellis’ group, then what is the tactical plan going forward?  

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