U.S. Women Battle Japan to a Disappointing 3-3 Draw
June 03, 2016
THE LAST TIME the United States women’s national team faced Japan—in the 2015 World Cup final—the Americans scored four goals in the first 15 minutes of play and went on to win the world title. On Thursday night in Commerce City, Colo., the script played out differently as the two teams battled to a 3-3 draw.
The Americans looked bright early in the contest, controlling possession, and generating a number of early attacks. However, Japan struck first when Mana Iwabuchi found an inch of space in front of Becky Sauerbrunn and fired a terrific shot from distance in the 14th minute. Then, Yuki Ogimi doubled Japan’s lead when she beat Kelley O’Hara to a cross on the back post eight minutes later.
The U.S. managed to cut the lead in half in the 27th minute. Mallory Pugh made a run down the right side and found Alex Morgan with her cross. Morgan tucked the pass into the goal with a right-footed effort.
In the second stanza, the Yanks received a boost when Saki Kumagai received her second caution of the night and was sent off in the 57th minute. Seven minutes later, Alex Morgan tallied again to level the score, heading home a set-piece delivery from Tobin Heath.
For the remainder of the contest, the U.S. continued to press and Lindsey Horan finally broke the deadlock with a brave headed effort in the 89th minute. While Horan’s goal looked to be the game-winner, Japan took advantage of a brief moment of disorganization on the American backline in stoppage time and Kumi Yokoyama beat U.S. keeper Hope Solo to tie the match moments before the final whistle.
WHEN A DRAW IS A WIN
Since last summer’s World Cup final the United States and Japan have taken divergent paths.
Following the loss, Japan—which has played in the finals of the last three major international tournaments—failed to qualify for the Rio Olympics. Meanwhile, the Americans dominated their way through a nine-game Victory Tour, walked through Olympic qualifying in February, and won the SheBelieves Cup in March.
That success appears to have made the U.S. a bit complacent, and a disappointing draw to Japan two months before the Olympic games may be just what the team needs to refocus its efforts.
Early in the contest, both teams had their opportunities, but Japan pushed the U.S. back on its heels with two early strikes. That forced the Americans to play from behind, certainly a position they don’t experience often.
Considering the fact that the U.S. roster has undergone a significant transition following the World Cup—and gotten much younger—a match like this against Japan is not necessarily a bad thing. Japan forced the Americans to battle their way back into the game, and even after the Americans took the late lead, Japan managed to send the U.S. to the locker room with a disappointing draw.
If handled properly, Thursday’s result gives head coach Jill Ellis a button she can push with her players over the next two months in moments when the team is not performing up to expectations—whether in training or in matches. Considering the U.S.’ success in recent months, the draw in Colorado could prove to be an important moment for the team to refocus and push on to Rio.
TOBIN HEATH TOO QUIET
Following last summer’s World Cup, Heath has looked hungry. She impressed during the Victory Tour and has torn up the opposition in the opening months of the National Women’s Soccer League.
On Thursday, however, the U.S. needed more from Heath. While she did provide the set piece service on Morgan’s second tally, the talented winger failed to do enough in the run of play. She conceded possession too often and too cheaply and failed to deliver the one or two moments of offensive creativity she is so well-known for producing.
In the absence of Carli Lloyd—who is out with an MCL sprain—and the long-term injury to Megan Rapinoe, the Americans needed a bit more of a boost from Heath against Japan.
With Lloyd out of the lineup and Horan playing limited minutes due to a minor injury, Ellis gave Allie Long another chance to prove her case for an Olympic roster spot on Thursday night. For years, Long has lingered on the fringes of the team but looked last month to boost her chances of a late run at the Olympic roster with a brace against Colombia in a rare appearance.
Against Japan, Long alternated between playing deeper as the U.S.’ No. 6 and creeping higher into the attack as the No. 8. While she failed to produce an “aha” moment, Long did recycle possession well and found her teammates in space on the flanks on multiple occasions. Whether that will be enough to supplant Sam Mewis as the team’s backup center midfielder in Rio is still an open question.
On the backline, O’Hara once again started at right back for the U.S., furthering speculation that she has supplanted World Cup starter Ali Krieger on the American depth chart. In the last eight matches for the U.S., Krieger has only started once.
The U.S. plays Japan again on Sunday in Cleveland (12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.