From the whistle, this one was different.
If you thought Team USA's scoreless draw against Australia on Tuesday was wildly dull (it was), it wasn't because the United States was playing in its usual fashion. In fact, the match represented a drastic and unprecedented tactical shift not just within this tournament, but also from Vlatko Andonovski's whole tenure managing the team.
The forward line was nominally Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Christen Press in a 4-3-3 configuration. In practice, though, it was Morgan and Rose Lavelle, as the U.S. played a de facto 4-4-2.
Instead of playing aggressively, Team USA sat back contentedly when the Australian defense had the ball, happy to cut off passing lanes and watch defenders pass uselessly among themselves. When the American defense had possession, they mostly mirrored the Australians. It was all very chill, as if the two sides had shaken hands before the game and agreed to take it easy.
But what shouldn't be missed about this game is the U.S. didn't need to win. It only needed a draw to comfortably advance. There's a notion that this team's yee-haw ethos is the reason it's so dominant, and if it drops that killer mentality, it must be because Andonovski is scared or doesn't trust his players. (Against Australia? Really?)
I think it's the opposite. I think he trusts them to adjust to a different system mid-tournament—and adjust again later. This versatility will be a huge benefit to the U.S. in the knockout stage as the competition gets tougher, starting with a World Cup Final rematch against the Netherlands on Friday.
Team USA's approach may have looked passive, but it was formed by an important tactical principle: deny Australia's biggest scoring threat, Sam Kerr, the ball. For the most part, the Americans succeeded in doing that. The change in shape meant the Matildas' midfield trio was consistently outnumbered.
Australia's No. 6, in particular—initially Chloe Logarzo, who later was subbed off for Kyra Cooney-Cross—was played out of the game almost entirely by Morgan and Lavelle's smart positioning. The Aussies saw significantly more of the ball, owning a rather shocking 65 percent of the possession time. But offensively, they largely resorted to hopeful long balls over the top or up the wings.
When they did advance with the ball in wide areas, the U.S. worked to fence them in using three or four players, with their outside backs and wide midfielders both sitting deep. That strategy worked. In the second half, Kerr dropped deep a little more often, but it was with a note of frustration that she wasn't seeing more of the ball higher up.
That's not to say there were zero concerns for the U.S. The one real chance it conceded—Mary Fowler's header hitting the crossbar after a long throw-in by Ellie Carpenter in the 18th minute—is worth studying. Aerial dominance in the box is one area the Americans can't let slip, regardless of tactics. Also worrisome was the dreadful passing accuracy everywhere in front of the back four. There, again, the team needs to be sharper, no matter what.
Andonovski also—and this, I believe, was the main reason he played Simpsons ball—wanted to save his players' legs going into the knockout stages. People forget how ridiculously grueling the Olympic schedule is. These teams have all played a game every three days, and those advancing are about to play a quarterfinal in another three days. A lot of those games are taking place in suffocating heat and humidity. Squad rotation is the main tool everyone uses to deal with that schedule, but if you're handed a game you don't have to win, why not give everyone as easy a day as possible?
Of course, this strategy could have backfired. If Australia hadn't gotten unlucky and hit the crossbar, things might have been different; some will argue that it still could backfire, because the U.S. isn't cultivating the right mentality to win the tournament. That take comes off as a bit infantilizing, though, as if the players aren't smart enough to know the difference between a knockout game and a late-group-stage game when they only need a draw. Then there's the possibility the things that went actually wrong in this game really do spell disaster going forward.
Ultimately, it's hard to judge this performance without knowing what the next one will look like. Team USA faces the Netherlands, its opponent from the 2019 World Cup Final, on Friday. The Dutch, who have plenty of attacking talent in players like Vivianne Miedema, Shanice van de Sanden and Lieke Martens, dropped eight goals on China on Tuesday. They lead the field in goals scored with an outrageous-sounding 21. But they also drew the weakest group, and 18 of those goals were against China and Zambia.
Relevant to the U.S. is that the Oranje have also conceded eight goals, at least two in each game and by far the most of all the teams advancing to the quarters. Looking back at their dominant win over China, both Chinese goals came down to dreadful defending, and a number of Dutch goals were scored in footraces the Americans aren't likely to lose, especially if Andonovski sticks with the Tierna Davidson-Becky Sauerbrunn pairing on defense.
There are certainly reasons to doubt the U.S. None of the group-stage games were stellar, and one was positively grim. But I like their odds as they go into the quarterfinals well rested and on the back of a solid defensive performance against Australia.