The United States women won their 10th Algarve Cup with a 2-0 victory over France in the final on Wednesday. That was the exact opposite result of the teams’ friendly last month, in which France dominated and could have won by more than two.
Both goals came in the first half, as an individual dribbling effort through midfield by Christen Press followed an early headed goal by Julie Johnston off a free kick. France struggled to attack with much ferocity, resorting to shots from outside the penalty area that Hope Solo snagged easily.
France improved in the second half, but the effects of four games in eight days took their toll on both teams, and the speed of play slowed considerably. The U.S. couldn’t muster much late in the game, while Solo saved France’s best effort on a penalty kick in the final 10 minutes.
Here are three thoughts on the title match:
This is the U.S. lineup that should start the first World Cup match
The most glaring omission from the team sheet before the game was forward Abby Wambach, but Amy Rodriguez and Alex Morgan offer a more dynamic partnership to start matches. Wambach can still be dangerous off the bench, as she was against Switzerland, but her physicality offers too one-dimensional of an approach to break down the better teams in the world.
One possible tweak would be to play Press alongside Morgan and bring in another midfielder, perhaps Tobin Heath or Megan Rapinoe. However, Johnston showed on Wednesday why she should play in central defense, and the Lauren Holiday-Morgan Brian pair in midfield has been the steadiest selection in recent weeks under head coach Jill Ellis.
Solo’s return added a dimension of defensive stability — not that Ashlyn Harris played poorly in February, but Solo undoubtedly has her defenders’ confidence. She controlled her penalty area well, punching a free kick similar to the one on which the U.S. scored early, when French goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi stayed glued to her line. She capped her shutout with a well-read penalty save in the 81st minute.
Johnston’s performance could mark her breakout on the international stage
The 22-year-old Mesa, Arizona, native starred frequently for U.S. youth teams, winning the 2012 U.S. Soccer Young Female Athlete of the Year and the 2014 NWSL Rookie of the Year award with the Chicago Red Stars. She captained the under-20 national team to its 2012 World Cup victory, taking the Bronze Ball as the tournament’s third-best player.
It’s not often a center back receives those sorts of accolades, but Johnston’s quality has stood out at every level so far. On Wednesday, she scored her first senior goal and made good on her immense potential as a possession-oriented center back.
She slashed through the French defense to head home a goal in the seventh minute, tracking back to block a shot from outside the penalty area five minutes later. Her technical ability and tactical awareness mark the direction women’s football is trending on the international stage.
France looked much weaker than in February, but Les Bleues missed several starters
Both lineups changed drastically since that match in Lorient, but in contrasting ways. While the U.S. gained experience with Solo rejoining the team and sharpness with Ali Kreiger starting at right back, France missed Laura Georges’ 157 caps and captain Wendie Renard in central defense. Élodie Thomis stayed on the bench, and Louisa Nécib is recovering from a ruptured plantar fascia suffered in the last match against the U.S.
As a result, the U.S. carved through the French back line on both goals in the first half. Johnston was one of a couple unmarked runners through the penalty area as Holiday curled a perfect free kick into the six-yard box, and Press ran through multiple players and sidestepped greenhorn center back Anaïg Butel before rolling her shot in.
Rather than the standard 4-4-2 it played in February with Thomis and Nécib on the wings, serving toward forwards Gaëtane Thiney and Eugénie Le Sommer, France started in a 4-3-3 on Wednesday. Le Sommer played left wing, and Thiney had little support up top. Manager Philippe Bergeroo experimented against the U.S. this time, but France should look completely different in the World Cup.