There is a little over 60 days until the 2019 Women’s FIFA World Cup. Last night in Denver, the USWNT World Cup tuneup continued with a thrilling 5-3 win over the Matildas of Australia. As the results show, USWNT has a lot going for them heading into June. Still, the USWNT World Cup tuneup tour shows our ladies have some things they need to tighten up as well.
First, let’s take a moment to celebrate. Naturally, as a resident of Colorado, I was blown away by the performance of Mallory Pugh. Straight out of Highlands Ranch, CO, Pugh scored on her first touch; which is 37 seconds after she entered the match. Asked about her performance and growth, Coach Jill Ellis states, “Mallory coming in, and that’s right now is her role, is to come in and be a difference maker. Just fantastic! And those were good goals. Those were world class goals.” A difference maker Pugh was.
Pugh would score again in stoppage time to seal the victory. Again, admittedly being a homer, Pugh really set the terms when she came on in the 66th minute for Megan Rapinoe. She was a great complement to Tobin Heath in the time they shared the field together. With most of the starters off after the 81st minute, Mallory was the focal point of the attack. Coach Ellis would go onto say that Pugh’s performance speaks to their depth and Mal’s ability to change games. USWNT will need this in France.
While Pugh may have been the star of the night, Tobin Heath was the unsung hero. All night, she made beautiful runs down the right side. Sometimes her teammates saw her. Sometimes they did not. Many of Heath’s opportunities came in the second half. Consequentially, that is when she scored her goal. A very versatile player, a large part of this teams’ success will depend on the success of Heath.
In relation to the USWNT World Cup tuneup and tweaks to the lineup to get ready for France, I asked Coach Ellis about efforts to find Heath more in the second half. She states, “Generally, we like to share the load in our ability to attack. I think there was a good variety in our attack tonight….but yeah, Tobin does a great job to be in a position to not just find the ball but to work off of her teammates to be in good spots. Tobin can finish and she can facilitate. That’s kind of a dream for a coach.” USWNT will need similar performances from Heath like last night in France to succeed.
Now, five goals scored is great, but three goals against? Not so great. In their last six USWNT World Cup tuneup matches, the ladies have given up 10 total goals. Of course, there are some bright spots there. In games against Brazil and Spain, USWNT allowed zero goals. Still, that means in the remaining games they allow the equivalent of 2.5 goals per game. One of those matches includes a 1-3 loss to France.
Two of the goals the Matildas scored were just good football. Specifically, the Samantha Kerr goal was a spectacular header. Not a whole lot you can do about that. Conversely, the first goal by the Matildas was due to poor defense. Australia caught USWNT on the counterattack and beat them in the wide area. At times, the back four was downright dreadful. Ante Milicic, the Australian coach, was a bit coy in his press conference.
I asked Milicic if he believes that fatigue played a part in USWNT’s transition success. He credits the coaching of Jill Ellis, the fluid shapes and schemes, and the polished nature of the opponent. Indeed, he is a consummate professional. He wouldn’t say it, but I will. The Matildas were fatigued. Commerce City sits at 5,164 feet. That’s only 126 feet short of a mile high. Australia was much better in the first half. While they did not have many chances, they took full advantage of the present opportunities. Even after getting up early in the second half, the Matildas wore as thin as the oxygen. They just could keep up once Coach Ellis put fresh legs in the match.
Whether it by strategic choice or necessity, Coach Ellis explains that they have been switching to a five back set to finish games. If it’s by necessity, that could be an issue in France. In the Mixed Zone, Megan Rapinoe states that as they continue to face tougher opponents, they need to improve as well. For sure, USWNT will be hit with everyone’s best shot as defending champs. These USWNT World Cup tune-up games prove they have the tools to succeed. Now, they just need to sharpen those tools.