By 90Min
June 28, 2019

Becky Sauerbrunn came off the pitch with tears of relief streaming down her face against Spain. It's an unusual sight to see from the US Women's National Team stalwart, especially at her third FIFA Women's World Cup.

She'd had a relatively easy tournament up until the United States took on Spain, who again were seen as nothing more than a checkpoint on the way to the quarter-finals by a lot of fans - with a whack of tickets purchased for a match against the hosts in Paris way before either team made it to that stage. 


When the World Cup draw was announced, all the chatter was around how the two sides would be back together in the last eight after meeting up in January.

In hindsight, that was a mistake. This Spanish team was no pushover. They battled, kept it physical and refused to be pushed around by the United States. Sauerbrunn even helped Spain gain a little momentum after failing to collect Alyssa Naeher's iffy pass - allowing Jennifer Hermoso to nip in and finish well.

There have been doubts cast over this defence for a number of months, but what's going on back there?


The Harder the Tests, the Bigger the Worry

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Spain proved to be a far harder test than group stage opponents Sweden, Chile and Thailand - though that wasn't a complete surprise.


The U.S won when they faced off in January, but not by much; Christen Press scoring the game's only goal for the USWNT. However, the post-match commentary suggested they buried him, much they did to Thailand. They didn't.


This time, there was no clean sheet for Naeher. The goalkeeper hadn't been tested too much at this World Cup - and that perhaps shone through with her naive pass to Sauerbrunn, leading to Hermoso's goal. Prior to that, she'd only had a free-kick against Chile to worry about. That, infact, went in - but she was rescued by the offside flag.


Naeher aside, this defence isn't what it was four years ago. Crystal Dunn is a fantastic soccer player, but she's not a fantastic defender. 

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It's a winger's job to get up the pitch, but there's a limit to how far they should go – and with Dunn being so far up, Sauerbrunn is essentially alone at the back to cover the left side on her own.

This is not a knock on Dunn; it's her natural nature to go forward. She's a forward for North Carolina Courage, her club side in the National Women's Soccer League – that's what she's used to doing for months at a time. Meanwhile, Kelley O'Hara on the right side is a trained defender. She knows when to stay back and help Abby Dahlkemper cover at the back.

While there could be the counter-argument that Dunn has been doing this for over a year in internationals and should know better by now, that argument just doesn't stack up. She hasn't played at left-back for a full year, because so much of her football is played in the NWSL - and this in an attacking role.

Meanwhile, there's a natural left-back on the bench: Tierna Davidson. Despite her brilliant corner kick deliveries against Chile, she won't start – Jill Ellis has her ideas, and she's sticking with them.


Is Naeher Entirely Trustworthy?

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The short answer is no.

When she's been tested in the last six months, she hasn't been up to the task. Meaningless friendlies against teams the United States know they're going to beat don't count as tests. 

Throughout the three Send Off Series matches against South Africa, New Zealand and Mexico, Naeher was hardly tested. Her clean sheets came because her defence did their jobs, not through her performances.

The name Hope Solo is going to keep ringing around until Naeher makes a big save. Against France, she'll be tested by Amandine Henry, Wendie Renard on corners, and the threat of a number of French forwards.

France should worry the US.


Quarter-Final Time

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In the quarter-finals back in 2015, United States took on China. This year, China are out of the tournament after losing to Italy in the round of 16 – and the competition this year is stiffer than ever before in women's soccer.

Megan Rapinoe has said she wants this match to be a total circus. Well, a 'total sh*tshow circus' to be precise. 

That's what U.S fans will get on Friday when France is the opponent. The hosts had a more complete performance in their round of 16 victory over Marta's Brazil, but neither team can afford to give an inch in the tournament's biggest match so far.

Both teams will be confident of getting a result - backed by vociferous support on both sides - but France may have the psychological edge given home advantage. The U.S will need to step up defensively, show no fear but also be wary of the threat France will pose - do that, and Jill's girls could be heading for yet another semi-final.

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