With nine months left before the FIFA World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, the reigning European champions and world champions met at Wembley Stadium to test their stuff and gauge each other's game. Before a crowd of 76,893, Friday’s celebratory affair of the women’s game featured a friendly that could very well be a final. And by all reasonable estimations, it just might be the final next year.
The heavily decorated USWNT fell 2-1 to an England squad at the top of its game, as the Americans continue to work through a pivotal era of transition overseen by Vlatko Andonovski. Transparently, the project is still underway.
Friday's match was momentous for myriad causes, and not simply the incredible fanfare. For the U.S., it included the unique and infrequent opportunity to test its progress against one of the world's top teams, to see what’s working and importantly to identify what's not.
Despite the loss, which feels historic, given the lopsided history between the two, tonight’s tightly contested battle proved an important challenge. And while the flaws were glaring at times, the U.S. showed sparks of real brilliance, exhibited a wide breadth of emerging talent and portrayed the foundation of a team whose cohesion might bring every opposing squad down nine months from now.
Sauerbrunn: "All we need is time"
After the match, veteran center back Becky Sauerbrunn told media the main thing this team needs to prepare for the World Cup is simply more time together: “Vlatko has brought in a lot of new players, and so we’re layering in that veteran experience with the new experience, and that takes time to jell.”
Nowhere was that handoff more apparent than in the second-half substitution of Megan Rapinoe, who was replaced by 17-year-old Alyssa Thompson on the wing. “I’m old enough to be her mom, and not just a team mom. So that’s scary,” the 37-year-old joked before imparting the role of being a key leader for an emerging generation of talent, Thompson included.
Thompson also spoke to media after the match and conveyed an earnest excitement met by incredible nerves, admitting there may have been tears in her eyes. Getting talent like hers onto the field and accruing challenges and experiences like Thompson took on tonight is key to the future success of this team.
Faces of the coming generation featured all across the pitch. Complementing Rapinoe in attack was the prolific threat of Sophia Smith, easily among this team's most lethal tools, hounding England’s back line at striker. She was joined by Ballon d’Or nominee Trinity Rodman, who seemed to have scored an incredible goal supplied by a brilliant Rapinoe flick. But it was called back by VAR, ranking high on a list of suspect officiating decisions from the night.
Elsewhere, 22-year-old Naomi Girma rose to the occasion along the back line, and “new generation talent” clocked quality minutes as starters or substitutions on the pitch.
Sauerbrunn summarized that the generations would gain the relationships and work out the details needed to win: “We’re on the right path; it’s just going to take some time.”
The potential is clear
This is a team with a relentless press that suffocates opposition from the front. With the likes of Smith, Rodman and Rapinoe charging at every breath and space and ball, the U.S. looked capable of winning games simply by forcing turnovers and smothering the opposition. That is precisely, after all, how the squad bagged its only goal.
Individual flourish and moments of class, from Smith to Rodman to Rose Lavelle to Lindsey Horan to Girma, played out on every line of the field. The abilities of the young generation are clear, as are those of "veterans" of various levels. Putting those pieces together more cohesively, gaining a rhythm across all lines of the field, identifying moments of brilliance and replicating their scenario will, as Sauerbrunn astutely identified, just take time.
As a few players pointed out in the post-match, this was a loss that could have been a win. And this team has nine months to work through the details to arrive to change the moments that altered tonight's fate.
There is work to be done
Their performance was flawed, though, and featured a cascade of rash mistakes that England ruthlessly pounced upon. The team lacked precision in passing, which at times reached an astonishing degree. The placement of balls in the final third prohibited momentum that may have otherwise been goals.
In an aggressive, physical battle warred by both parties, the U.S. committed a few egregious fouls that put the team in too vulnerable a spot. Matured decision-making and experience should weed that out.
A few areas of the pitch were strategically targeted for relentless attack, and key players were singled out for timely swarming.
But above any other factor resides the lingering glare from an ineffective midfield living in stubborn contrast to the talent available to play that role. Something persistent is wrong here under Andonovski, and a midfield toothless across recent friendlies is now piling up. Whether this means moving Crystal Dunn into her natural position (ahem), debuting alternatives to Andi Sullivan at the No. 6 position or adjusting formation to put forth a double pivot, this area of the pitch needs attention, experimentation, time together and work.
Speaking to Dunn, Girma and Rapinoe, they all shared similar sentiments of a team failing to exhibit full composure on the ball, needing to take time and build confidence there to be more effective.
The World Cup
There is ample time to prepare. And importantly, each present issue is eminently solvable. This team has—and has shown tonight at Wembley—the clear ability of their talents, the promise of the young generation and the leadership of a decorated veteran core, all held together by an undiminished ability to work through pressure to win. There will be nine more months of trial and error.
The squad goes on now to Spain for a Tuesday friendly, before hosting Germany twice in November, hungry for the lessons necessary to compete for a third straight world championship trophy amid the competition of the world's most competitive pool.