The US at this World Cup are young, talented … and running out of time to peak

When the United States won the 2019 Women’s World Cup, they did so with a team certain of their identity, one that pressured opponents into submission early in each match. The Americans scored in the 12th minute or earlier in each of their first six games of that campaign. A defining characteristic of the USA in that era was their high press and counter-press after losing possession. It was suffocating and relentless – and it forced some of the best teams in the world to panic.

Since taking over after that World Cup, head coach Vlatko Andonovski has attempted to add nuance to the team’s style. They still press high – just not as often. Now, the US drop off at times and let their opponents play. Thursday’s 1-1 draw with the Netherlands brought to fore the realities of that double-edged sword.

The USA struggled in the first-half as they mostly defended in a mid-block, allowing the Netherlands to ping the ball around and control play. The Dutch, playing a 3-5-2, were happy to keep possession.

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“If anybody gives us the space to play, we’ll be the better team,” the Netherlands coach, Andries Jonker, said after the match.

The US are typically the better team when they limit the space in games and force teams to play at their fast pace. They like to regain the ball in positions higher up the field, but too often in the past year that has not been the case. It was a problem again in the first-half against the Netherlands.

“[The Netherlands] are a great team,” Trinity Rodman said after Thursday’s game. “I think for us, in the first-half, it wasn’t really them, it was us. I think we needed to be a bit more attack minded … And I don’t think we did that until the second-half. Yeah, there were a couple chances, but we could have created more.”

Rose Lavelle’s entry as the US No 10 at the start of the second-half – combined with the Dutch losing center-back Stefanie van der Gragt due to injury – altered the tone of the game, but it was the change in the team’s line of confrontation that swung momentum. The US began to apply pressure higher up the field, utilizing their front line’s superior athleticism. With that came a noticeable sense of purpose among the Americans. That was – and long has been – their identity.

“I think the fact that this team fought back is a little bit of that mentality that we needed in this tournament,” Alex Morgan said after lamenting the team’s lack of pressure in the first-half. “I think it’s just a little unfortunate that now first place [in the group] is up for grabs, but we’re going to do everything we can this next game.”

‘Mentality’ is the buzzword around the USA, and it is intrinsically tied to how they play. Could this team, who have moved on from so many successful veterans of the past generation and brought 14 players to their first World Cup, rediscover their swagger? The world has been looking for that since Andonovski began a roster overhaul 18 months ago, and evidence of it has come between more disjointed efforts (or downright regressions, as at the end of 2022, when the team had their first three-game losing streak in 30 years).

Morgan is one of the few veterans remaining from both the 2015 and 2019 World Cup triumphs. At this World Cup, she is flanked by Rodman and Sophia Smith, two of six USA starters from the match playing in their first World Cup. Andonovski has used the same lineup in both of the team’s matches in New Zealand thus far, in an effort to simply get them playing together. As he stressed on multiple occasions after Thursday’s game, this starting 11 played with each other for the first time in a competitive match just a week ago.

“This team is not just young; this team is also a fresh team, a team that hasn’t spent a lot of minutes together,” Andonovski said. “What you saw in the second-half is what you’re going to see going forward as a baseline. I think we’re just gonna get better from game to game and we’re going to be a lot more efficient as well.”

Evidence of the newness of those relationships can be found throughout the field. Julie Ertz and Naomi Girma at center-back has been the most seamless of the new partnerships. Savannah DeMelo has had to quickly integrate into the midfield while deputizing for Lavelle.

Up top is where the most questions remain. Individually, Morgan, Rodman and Smith are incredibly talented. Together, as a trio capable of combining and working off of each other to manipulate defenses, they are a work in progress.

There are moments of brilliance, as there was in the send-off match against Wales (between Rodman, Smith and Lynn Williams), against Vietnam (when Morgan’s flick set up Smith for her first goal), and against the Netherlands (on multiple occasions in the final half-hour). In between, there have been moments of disconnect, signs of a talented trio that don’t yet know how to complement each other.

“Obviously, connections are building, the more we practice, the more we play together,” Rodman said. “I think this game, me, Alex and Soph obviously had a noticeable, better connection today. That goes with playing with each other … At the end of the day, back lines have to respect the speed and ability that we have up top, and I think we just did a really good job of working off each other.”

Next up for the USA are Portugal, a team with more talent than Vietnam and with at least mathematical hope of making it out of the group at their first World Cup. Portugal are disciplined and difficult to break down. They held the Netherlands close, eventually losing 1-0.

Goal difference is likely to decide the group, meaning the Americans will want to score as many as they can while defeating Portugal. In the past, that task would feel like a given. Right now? Much like in 2015, the USA’s group stage looks like a laborious effort.

Making the knockouts doesn’t look to be in jeopardy, but is this team, the way it is playing now, ready to make a run at a third straight World Cup title? Many of the same questions were asked eight years ago, and the USA eventually prevailed after some drastic tactical changes were made in the quarter-finals.

Like then – and unlike 2019, when the USA came out flying and never looked back – the Americans are yet to fully click for any extended period. They are figuring out their triggers, and look uncertain of their shape when they try to drop lower. They are grinding out results, starting off slowly and taking considerable amounts of time to adjust in games.

Yes, they are young, and they are unfamiliar with each other. Yes, there is great potential and plenty of talent among the group. They are also in the thick of a World Cup and running out of time to show signs that they are nearing their peak.

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