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U.S. Women's National Team

Alex Morgan Lifts U.S. to Sloppy Win Over England

The striker's 50th international goal gave Jill Ellis' team a much-needed victory, but it also masked a few worrisome performances in the midfield and up top. John D. Halloran assesses the situation.
BY John D. Halloran Posted
February 14, 2015
10:34 AM
THE UNITED STATES WOMEN'S NATIONAL TEAM really needed a win against England on Friday. After going 1-1-2 in December, and suffering a humbling 2-0 loss to France on Sunday, questions about whether the team was ready for this summer’s World Cup were becoming more frequent—and louder.

Thanks to Alex Morgan's first-half header the U.S. got out in front and held onto the lead, defeating England 1-0 in a sloppy match played in Milton Keynes.

Here are three things we learned from the contest.

The Defense Looked Better

Against France, wide backs Meghan Klingenberg and Lori Chalupny took a beating. U.S. head coach Jill Ellis made some adjustments to the starting lineup, reinserting Ali Krieger at right back while pushing Klingenberg to the left and dropping Chalupny to the bench.

At first glance, the changes seemed to help, but England also made things easy on the Americans with low pressure and an inability to sustain possession for any length of time.

Krieger looked good, making a number of important tackles, and she did well to protect the back post late in the match, heading away a dangerous pass in the dying moments.

But the big story from the last two matches on the defensive side for the U.S. has been the play of Becky Sauerbrunn, Whitney Engen, and Ashlyn Harris. Since the 2012 Olympics Sauerbrunn has established herself as one of the best center backs in the world and in these two friendlies, especially with captain Christie Rampone out injured, Sauerbrunn showed her worth.

Engen’s last two performances also inspired confidence. Replacing Rampone in the lineup, Engen played well in both matches—a fact that should give Ellis and U.S. fans confidence in their depth at the position, and maybe even give Ellis a selection headache when Rampone returns.

Harris, filling in for suspended goalkeeper Hope Solo, played well for her second match in a row, parrying into the crossbar the one good shot England managed. The rebound fell to an England attacker who put the ball away, but the goal was (incorrectly) ruled to be offside.

Given the uncertainty of Solo's status with the team, Harris’ performances in the last two games have proved the U.S. has a capable backup. The U.S. men’s goalkeeper, Tim Howard, even took to Twitter to congratulate Harris on her performance.

Midfield is Still Sixes and Eights

If the U.S. backline inspired confidence, the midfield did just the opposite. England did not apply much pressure but the U.S. still spent much of the match resorting to fruitless long balls and clearly lacked a creative presence in the attacking third. Morgan Brian and Lauren Holiday were deployed as the dual No. 6’s in Ellis’ newfangled 4-2-2-2. While neither could effectively get forward against France, both could do so against England’s low-pressure defense and did so in creating the game’s lone goal. However, that isn’t likely to happen if and when the U.S. plays teams like Germany, France, Brazil, or Sweden in the World Cup—and the U.S. is likely to struggle with two of its key creative forces pinned back.

Carli Lloyd was again, confusingly, deployed wide in the midfield and once again she struggled to make much of an impact. Christen Press, the U.S.’s other wide midfielder, had an uncharacteristically sloppy game.

What’s Next?

Unfortunately for Ellis, the two friendlies against France and England may have created as many questions as they’ve answered. In both matches, Ellis abandoned her previously preferred 4-3-3 for the 4-2-2-2. Sometimes called a Brazilian box midfield—or as fans of the U.S. men’s national team will remember, Bob Bradley’s “empty bucket”—the 4-2-2-2 does have its advantages.

If the U.S. knows it can’t win the possession battle, the 4-2-2-2 can be used to keep the defense compact while presenting opportunities to counterattack—a tactic deployed in the U.S. men’s historic 2-0 win over Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup.

However, the 4-2-2-2 doesn’t solve any of the problems Ellis was trying to fix with the 4-3-3. The new look makes it difficult, if not impossible, to create a midfield overload in key areas of the pitch, and does not have a place a creative No. 10 sitting directly underneath the forwards.

How this new system fares against a 4-3-3 also remains to be seen as both France and England played a traditional 4-4-2. Additionally, switching formations this close to the World Cup gives the appearance that Ellis is grasping at straws and doesn’t have a true idea for where the team should be headed or how it should be playing.

The other big question for Ellis is what to do with Abby Wambach. Against England, Wambach was restored to the starting lineup and failed to score for her sixth straight match. Wambach may still have a role to play in the team, but perhaps it is only in situations when opponents bunker defensively and give the U.S. control of the midfield. This is only likely to happen against weaker opponents, or late in a match when the U.S. is chasing a lead and its opponent concedes the midfield. At this point in her career, it seems rather obvious that Wambach offers little as a starter.

How Ellis manages Wambach, and what she can get out of her aging star, will be crucial to the U.S.’s success—or lack thereof—at the World Cup this summer.

John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

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