Width, pressure and finishing: how USA can turn round their World Cup

As a fire alarm echoed throughout Eden Park on Tuesday night and the public-address system asked everyone to evacuate, most of the crowd of 42,000 stayed in their seats in confusion. It turned out to be a false alarm, and almost too fitting a metaphor for a night to forget for the United States.

A scoreless draw with Portugal secured the defending champions a place in the knockout rounds. That was widely expected by most of the world prior to the tournament. How the US got there, however, could be generously described as a grind.

Something clearly needs to change for the US. The Americans possess the individual talent to perform far better than they have thus far. Among the necessary changes is the relatively simple: be more clinical in front of goal. Dig into how those chances will be created though, and things get more complicated.

Pressure early and consistently

Prior to Vlatko Andonovski’s appointment as head coach in 2019, USA’s identity had been one of relentless, early high pressure that made opponents uncomfortable close to their own goal. USA tried that in the opening few minutes against Portugal on Tuesday with some success. It took 25 seconds for Rose Lavelle and Lynn Williams – Andonovski’s changes for the Portugal match – to combine on the right side and send in a cross. USA kept their line of confrontation high and locked Portugal in deep.

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The trend continued. Seven minutes in, Portugal tried to play a short goal kick and build out from the back. Sophia Smith and Alex Morgan stepped into the 18-yard box to steal the ball and Portugal scrambled. Portugal regained the ball as the entire United States team stepped high, and Ana Borges hurriedly cleared under pressure from the Americans. Naomi Girma won a 50-50 ball well into Portugal’s half.

After that, the press dropped off. Credit to Portugal, of course, for solving that pressure. But the defending champions shared blame for the situation: their press once again looked out of sync.

In the last 16 the US face Sweden, a team more than capable of matching the Americans’ physicality. If USA are to have any success, they need to come out of the gate aggressively and not let off the pressure. Then – hopefully – comes the finishing to make sure they convert on that pressure. We’ll get to that.

Midfielders must ask for the ball

Thirty minutes into the Portugal match, Smith received a pass on the left touchline from Crystal Dunn. The Dunn-Smith combination was by far the most common passing sequence of the night for USA, creating a predictable swing of the ball up the left that Portugal shut down with ease.

But this moment was illustrative of the root of the issue. Instead of trying to turn her defender and run in behind, as Smith attempted to do several times in the first half, the forward put her foot on the ball to look for teammates. All she found was four red shirts in a diamond and no teammates checking into space. Smith’s only option was to play the ball back to Dunn.

The US managed to solve the pressure and swing the ball to Williams on the other side of the pitch, but the glacial movement made them predictable. Portugal’s 4-4-2 diamond owned the midfield, and they made more offers to receive the ball from teammates than the USA – especially in the middle third, per Fifa’s data. The lack of movement is a symptom of the USA’s disconnect between players who had not played together as a starting XI before this tournament.

Create more width

Megan Rapinoe has been outspoken over the past week about the team’s lack of width in attack. In her heyday, Rapinoe would have been the perfect solution to the problem, but at the age of 38 Rapinoe is being used as a super-sub by Andonovski. The need for more width remains, however.

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Implicit to that issue is something that few have discussed: as talented as the USA forwards are, there is significant redundancy. Smith, Williams and Trinity Rodman can play on the wing, but they are better as central forwards. Smith and Rodman mostly play in the No 9 role for their clubs. Morgan, who is Andonovski’s choice as central striker, only plays there.

The risks of USA’s 4-3-3 shoehorning Smith and Rodman into wide roles have been exposed at this tournament. Smith wants to cut inside on the dribble – which is how she thrived as the 2022 National Women’s Soccer League MVP – and that means less service for Morgan. A logical solution is to switch to two strikers, and the most radical (but still quite logical) way to get there is a 3-5-2.

The pragmatic Andonovski is unlikely to go in that direction, but it could be a necessary gamble. Alana Cook could join Julie Ertz and Girma at center-back, allowing Emily Fox and Dunn to be more involved in the attack as wing-backs. A fired-up Kelley O’Hara is also an option at wing-back, as is Sofia Huerta, whose pinpoint crossing would supply a Smith-Morgan combination up front with early balls in behind. The three center-backs should provide the necessary defensive cover for Huerta to be more attack-minded. And the 3-5-2 would give USA more cover in midfield, where they’ve been outnumbered the past two games.

Move Julie Ertz

The more realistic option for Andonovski is to utilize Ertz the way she was supposed to when she announced her return in March, as the answer to the team’s lack of bite in midfield. This looks like the best move on paper, but it also disrupts the one thing that has gone well for USA thus far at this World Cup, which is the Ertz-Girma pairing at center-back. Ertz and Girma had not played a competitive match together before the tournament, but they have not looked out of sync the way the rest of the squad has.

Move Ertz to the holding midfield role and stick with the 4-3-3, and Andonovski has the flexibility to let Lindsey Horan play higher up next to the No 10. This would have been the perfect way to unlock the potential of Lavelle, but she is suspended for the Sweden game. Savannah DeMelo started the first two games in the No 10 role, but Ashley Sanchez had previously been developed as the like-for-like swap in Lavelle’s extended spring absence due to injury.

This scenario moves Ertz up as a solution, but potentially calls upon two players – Sanchez and Cook – who did not play a single minute in the group stage. Implicit in Andonovski’s lack of substitutions in the Netherlands game is a lack of trust in his reserves.

Dunn is an option there, too, given that she plays as an attacking midfielder for the Portland Thorns, but it is a position she is unfamiliar with for the US. Then again, we have been told ad nauseam about how this lineup hasn’t played together, and Dunn is plenty capable. She could serve as the box-to-box midfielder to free up Horan to play the No 10 role. Then the question becomes whether Andi Sullivan remains as the holding midfielder or Ertz steps in.

Learn how to finish

Nothing about this is simple, but in a way, it is the most straightforward fix. The issues across the team inform the idea that USA’s problems are systemic. However, the Americans have had opportunities, and the finishing has often been wasteful.

The problem seemed harmless enough in the opener against Vietnam, when a 3-0 victory for the US sparked optimism (the Netherlands’ 7-0 victory over the Vietnamese on Tuesday put that optimism into perspective). The final count for USA in that opener was 28 shots, seven on target, three goals. Against the Netherlands it was 18, three and one; against Portugal, 15, five and 0.

Step one is to improve play between the midfield and forwards. No matter who plays on that frontline, and no matter if it remains a three-front or shifts more drastically, it’s on the individuals to then bury the opportunities. In the 26th minute against Portugal, Williams had a shot saved from six-yards out, then got a second opportunity from the same spot but skied it over the bar. Morgan tied Williams with a team-high six shots on Tuesday, but five were off target and one was blocked.

Whoever starts up front on Sunday will shoulder the pressure of scoring. It may take an exceptional individual performance to drag the team past Sweden and into the quarter-finals.

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