The U.S. women's national team couldn't finish off Japan and had to settle for a 2-2 draw to open play at the SheBelieves Cup.

By Laken Litman
February 27, 2019

CHESTER, Pa. — Well, that was not how the U.S. women’s national team wanted to start its home tour ahead of the Women's World Cup.

The U.S. has eight games scheduled around the country before heading to France this summer, and in the SheBelieves Cup opener on Wednesday night, the U.S. and Japan tied, 2-2, thanks to Yuka Momiki's goal seconds into stoppage time for the equalizer.

The U.S. started fast and dominated possession, but the team also looked out of sync, discombobulated and tired at times, especially in the second half.

Granted, the Americans still have four months to clean things up and correct mistakes before the Women's World Cup, but this will prove to be a learning experience as the team moves forward.

“It’s a learning process,” veteran Tobin Heath said.

Japan is the eighth-ranked team in the world, and the U.S. plays two more top-10 teams in the next week with England on Saturday in Nashville, Tenn., and Brazil next Tuesday in Tampa, Fla. England beat Brazil 2-1 in the day's earlier game to take an initial lead in the four-team table.

Here are three thoughts on a surprising 2-2 finish:

Where does Press fit in with Ellis's XI appearing to be set? 

Manager Jill Ellis rolled out a starting lineup that looked very close to what she might go with when the U.S. plays Thailand in its World Cup opener on June 11. Alyssa Naeher in goal; Kelley O’Hara, Abby Dahlkemper, Tierna Davidson and Crystal Dunn made up the back line; Julie Ertz, Mallory Pugh, and Rose Lavelle were in the midfield; and Heath, Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan were stationed up front as the attacking trio. Becky Sauerbrunn, who normally starts at center back, was out with a minor knee injury, and her status is to-be-determined for the next two games. Midfielder Lindsey Horan, meanwhile, was out with a quadriceps injury, and their absences left Davidson and Pugh as the beneficiaries.

Ellis tinkered here and there in the second half, most notably subbing in Christen Press in the 75th minute right after Japan had tied the game 1-1. She quickly set up Alex Morgan for the second goal of the night that put the U.S. up 2-1. It was Morgan’s 99th goal of her career.

Things always seem to happen when Press is involved—like when she scored the decisive goal in a 1-0 victory over Spain last month. Depth is crucial heading into a World Cup, but Press is too good to come off the bench. She’s a playmaker and a game-changer. And Ellis knows this.

“Freaking awesome,” Ellis said of Press. “She’s posing a lot of challenges now in terms of selection. I thought she was an instant game-changer for us. I thought she was impactful in however many minutes she had.”

Press played the final 20 minutes, but the U.S. could have used her earlier.

U.S. can't finish off its opponent

The Americans had the lead twice, and Japan equalized twice–a script all too familiar to the U.S. after the 2011 Women's World Cup final. The U.S. also had way too many chances that went to waste. The first goal from Rapinoe seemed like it should have come earlier, but the U.S. couldn’t get on the same page fast enough. In the 23rd minute, Heath went right at her defender, cut the ball back and sent a low cross to Rapinoe to finish. (As a side note, teams must defend Heath better than that if they want to stop those kinds of plays in the future.)

The U.S. was fairly quiet after that. Ertz missed a wide-open ball off a Lavelle cross early in the first half, and Rapinoe nearly had a second goal in the 38th minute, but her free kick was tipped out of bounds. Morgan had a chance in the 49th minute at the top of the box but was blocked.

The U.S. didn’t score again until the 77th minute when Morgan got through, but too many mistakes kept Japan in the game.

Despite missed opportunities, Ellis claims she was happy with the performance.

“In terms of our team play—the way I asked the team to play, work ethic, attacking, we were in their goal zone 34 times—in terms of performance, I think the first half to the second we created chances,” Ellis said. “We asked the players to press more and I think they gave a lot. I wasn’t disappointed in the players or the performance, but obviously disappointed in the result.”

To win the World Cup, though, the U.S. has to capitalize more often.

Chris Szagola/AP

Naeher, defense will continue to be tested

Naeher solidified her starting job two years ago after Hope Solo was suspended and had her contract terminated by U.S. Soccer. Though she’s been solid, especially in NWSL play, Naeher has mostly been an unknown on the big stage. She is a World Cup champion—she was Solo’s backup on the 2015 squad—but these SheBelieves Cup matches serve as important tests ahead of this summer.

Naeher didn’t get much action in the first half, but was caught off guard when Davidson’s poor clearance resulted in a goal by Emi Nakajima to tie things up 1-1. Naeher allowed Japan to equalize in stoppage time when Mokimi struck from close range to make the final score 2-2.

Ellis has said one of the biggest things her team needs to work on the next four months is cohesion between the back line and goalkeepers. On Japan’s second equalizer, Dahlkemper and Davidson went for the same player, who played through to Momiki on Dunn’s side, and scored. That could have been mitigated with better communication all around. Sauerbrunn, who is vocal and more experienced reading the game, practiced at center back all week. Davidson, who is looking to earn trip to France, and Dahlkemper are vocal too, but they will need to learn to better adjust moving forward.

“That’s why we play these games,” Ellis said. “Because what I can tell you is from France to Spain, the things that we felt we needed to work on and adjust and get better at, we’ve seen positive steps in tonight’s game. Becky was in there most of the week and we had to pull her (because of her injury), but both players are good at what they do. We just need to get better.”

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