USWNT falls flat in SheBelieves Cup finale, concedes title to France
- The U.S. was beaten in all facets by France, falling for a second straight game on home soil against a European power and finishing last in the four-team tournament.
The U.S. women's national team entered Tuesday's SheBelieves Cup finale with a chance to win the competition for a second straight year. Instead, it's finished dead last.
Goals from France's Camille Abily and Eugenie Le Sommer within the first 10 minutes set the stage for a 3–0 victory under the rain at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., giving France the championship of the high-profile friendly tournament. With Germany beating England 1–0 in their finale, the combination of points and goal differential sent the U.S. to fourth place, when a win would've launched the Americans to the top of the table. Such are the fine margins of a competition featuring four of the top five teams in the world.
Despite the unofficial nature of the tournament, the consecutive losses on home soil for the first time in over 17 years (February, 2000) will be a cause for concern for the U.S., especially coming off a worst-ever showing at the Olympics. As the USA goes through its transition in the 2019 World Cup cycle, and with few truly meaningful games to play until qualifying commences, it's clear there's plenty of work necessary for the team to get back to its 2015 World Cup-winning level.
Here are three thoughts on the finale and the implications for the U.S. women:
Psychological edge over France disappears
No matter how many strides France has made in the women's game, it always seemed to fold on the big stage, especially against the U.S. Whether it was in the Olympics last summer, in the SheBelieves Cup that preceded it or the 2015 Algarve Cup final, despite playing the U.S. tight, France would eventually wilt. This is a big win both on the field and on the psyche for Les Bleues going into the 2019 World Cup that France will host. Under new manager Olivier Echouafni, perhaps France can turn its great generation into a trophy-winning power after all. Talent was never the issue under his predecessor, Philippe Bergeroo.
The SheBelieves Cup trophy may not be the most prestigious piece of silverware, but given who else was involved in the competition, it's not too shabby of a building block, either. For the French, it's aptly named. They certainly believe they can play on the USA's level–or vastly exceed it–when it matters now.
The 3-5-2 has a ways to go
A lot of this competition was about experimentation for all four teams involved, and with manager Jill Ellis trying to refine the USA in a 3-5-2 formation, there were bound to be some hiccups. On top of that, Ellis elected to keep the likes of Julie Johnston, Alex Morgan, Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan and rising star Mallory Pugh on the bench until the result was largely in hand. Once Pugh and Dunn entered at halftime, the USA's attack was vastly improved, though it didn't result in anything on the scoreboard. So before hitting every panic button in sight, take in the result with the proper perspective.
That said, if the 3-5-2 is going to be the way of the future, there's a ways to go on the learning curve. France wisely exploited the space with its speed and picked its spots precisely. It beat the U.S. in all facets and absolutely earned its result.
Le Sommer's goal, for example, came seconds after a U.S. possession in France's final third. It took no time at all to identify the weakness and attack it.
The third was an instance of shambolic spacing and defending, with the U.S. late every step of the way. That kind of play isn't going to cut it at the highest level.
Communication appeared to be a disaster across the back. Whereas the Johnston-Becky Sauerbrunn central pairing flanked by Ali Krieger and Meghan Klingenberg was largely unbeatable at the World Cup, the trio Tuesday was a polar opposite. As to be expected from an experimental squad, chemistry and cohesiveness were lacking and it showed in a big way.
Three questions that persist
Is Alyssa Naeher the heir apparent to Hope Solo? In her audition to replace Solo, Naeher didn't cover herself in glory in the opening of the de facto final. Between fouling Le Sommer to concede the opening penalty and deciding to stay rooted to her line as Le Sommer charged ahead on the counter, that's a tough sell. Now, she wasn't done any favors by the three-player back line and she did shut out Olympic champion Germany in the opener. Getting the nod in the final would signal that she's ahead of Ashlyn Harris, who started in the 1-0 loss to England, in Ellis's pecking order.
Which players helped themselves? Casey Short, Allie Long, Rose Lavelle, Sam Mewis and Lynn Williams were a handful of players who received ample opportunities to prove themselves against top competition. Williams scored the USA's only goal of the competition, a winner vs. Germany, but also plays in the age of Morgan, Dunn and Pugh. Mewis and Lavelle generally fared well in the midfield, Long appeared miscast in the back and Short endured plenty of pains against France. While a Long-Short tandem makes for great puns and potential headlines, it's not necessarily a reflection of who should play in the back. How Ellis views all of their performances, and through what prism, is all that matters at this juncture, but it was far from a sweeping success across the board.
Is a CBA resolution in sight? The hope was that it'd be done and dusted before this competition. It wasn't, and now there isn't exactly a pressing target date to hit. A significantly improved deal would go a ways in restoring some good morale across the U.S. women. It'll be a while before they'll be able to achieve that feeling on the field in an environment with some real stakes together after Tuesday's setback.