On Hope Solo’s return from suspension, the United States women came from behind to defeat Norway, 2-1, in their opening match of the 2015 Algarve Cup. The U.S. passed a stern test against a historic rival, but not without difficulties.
Ada Hegerberg thundered home a header from just outside the six-yard box to give Norway the lead before halftime, but Carli Lloyd scored twice in the second half to reverse the deficit. First, she turned and fired from outside the area, then she put away a penalty.
Norway should be the U.S.’s most difficult group opponent in Portugal, as the final two matches are against Switzerland (Friday, noon ET on Fox Sports 1) and Iceland (Monday, 1:30 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1).
Here are three thoughts on the U.S.’s opening victory over Norway:
• A troubling pattern has emerged of the U.S. controlling play but struggling to score
Norway started in a fairly low 4-4-2 block on Wednesday, maintaining a strong defensive presence and slowing the speed of play at any opportunity. The U.S. couldn’t circulate possession fast enough, its ball movement rendered ineffective because of the stagnant tempo.
Its back line knocked the ball around, but play became too individualistic in attack, with little space to combine beyond sending through balls toward Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach. The one time Norway sped up the game was on its goal.
After winning the ball on top of its own penalty area, Norway combined up the right side before Hegerberg headed home unmarked.
Morgan Brian lost her mark after Hegerberg checked back into midfield to lay the ball off, spinning away to get into the area.
Against stronger opponents at the World Cup, the U.S. will have to make its early momentum count and stay focused on the other end in counterattacking situations. Going down against Sweden or Australia in June would be a tougher deficit to overturn, especially in the competitive gauntlet of the World Cup.
• The U.S. midfield made some strides but is still searching for consistency
Christen Press and Lloyd comprised the top midfield block in Jill Ellis’ 4-2-2-2, with Brian and Lauren Holiday underneath. After a fair amount of confusion against England and France last month, the narrow midfield improved even within the 90-minute stint against Norway.
The key has become not just for Press and Lloyd to tuck inside and combine well, but also for the fullbacks to overlap at the right moments to unsettle the opposition defense.
Press showed well in the first half, smacking a shot off the post after slaloming through defenders, and Lloyd had a better second half. The next step is getting all four midfielders, and the top two in particular, clicking at the same time.
Press and Lloyd did combine for the latter's first goal, with both players within the central channel of the field.
Playing four central-minded players should overload any opponent and allow further combination play among all six attacking players (including the two forwards), but the ball circulation has to be faster. For now, it still looks like the players lack a bit of understanding and a cohesively choreographed attacking plan.
• Solo looked somewhat rusty on her return
In her return following a 30-day suspension, Solo dropped a cross in the fourth minute through minimal traffic, getting bumped by Norway forward Isabell Herlovsen and U.S. center back Julie Johnston in the process. Solo got a hand on the Norway goal but couldn’t push Hegerberg’s header over the bar, although she couldn’t really be faulted on the play.
She started the second half in the opposite fashion, making an important reaction save from inside the six-yard box in the 55th minute to keep the score at 1-0. Two minutes later, Lloyd put away her first goal and followed with the second after six more minutes. Goalkeepers are often called upon to make one or two crucial interventions, and despite her early bobble, Solo still affected the match positively for the U.S.
Being out of team training for a month wouldn’t have helped her sharpness, despite maintaining her rigorous personal training schedule back home in Seattle. Barring any other setback, she should only get better as the Algarve Cup wears on. A strong Solo in Canada will be vital to any success the team has, and that improvement in form should be met with more confidence from the team in front of her.