U.S. shows fighting spirit vs. Netherlands, but attacking issues remain

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Some of the big questions surrounding the U.S. women’s national team heading into this World Cup revolved around its relative inexperience. Could the team, with 14 players performing in their first World Cup, deal with the pressure cooker environment? Could they handle moments when things weren’t going their way, especially against the best teams in the world?

The final answers to those queries won’t come until later, but one question was answered in the affirmative in the 1-1 draw with Netherlands. Can the U.S. take a punch? You betcha. Shoulder charges, too.

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For much of the opening 60 minutes, the U.S. was losing the battle in all manners of ways. The Dutch possession game was humming with metronome-like efficiency. This was reflected on the scoreboard, with Netherlands ahead 1-0 following Jill Roord‘s 17th-minute goal.

The physical encounters taking place on the field were going Netherlands’ way as well. It certainly didn’t help that referee Yoshimi Yamashita was taking the lightest of hands when it came to meting out discipline. Dutch midfielder Jackie Groenen committed six first-half fouls while somehow avoiding a yellow card, while U.S. midfielder Savannah DeMelo probably deserved to go into the book as well. It seemed the height of absurdity when, in the 51st minute, U.S. midfielder Rose Lavelle was booked for a foul after seemingly being impeded by Groenen — the only caution of the match.

And then, in the 59th minute, the U.S. got mad. Danielle van de Donk barged into U.S. midfielder and Olympique Lyon club teammate Lindsey Horan, sending her sprawling. When the U.S. won a corner at the end of the sequence, Horan let Van de Donk know what she thought about the challenge, and Yamashita came over to make sure temperatures didn’t rise further.

A yellow card to Horan at that moment would have been her second of the tournament, resulting in a one-game suspension.

“I got a little heated and [van de Donk] got to hear it,” Horan said after the game. “Julie [Ertz] came up to me in the box and she was like ‘Linds, please, just don’t get another yellow card. Just score this goal to shut everyone up.'”

That’s precisely what happened. Horan powerfully headed home Lavelle’s corner to even the score, letting out a cathartic roar in the process. The U.S. was running downhill after that, piling on the pressure and creating some clear chances. Yet, it couldn’t find the breakthrough to give it all three points.

After final whistle, Horan and Van de Donk hugged it out on the field and the pair shared a laugh as Horan walked past her rival in the mixed zone. Horan spoke of how she loves Van de Donk’s fighting spirit — when they’re on the same team. But she also noted how the tackle changed the game for her.

“I don’t think you ever want to get me mad because I don’t react in a good way usually [for the opponent] and I want something more,” she said. “I want to win more. I want to score more. I want to do more for my team. That moment — that little tackle, big tackle — changed the shift in my head. I want to do everything for my team, and let’s win this game.”

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That the U.S. managed to get a draw on a day when it played well short of its best in some ways can be viewed as a good sign. After all, this was the U.S. team’s first real test of the tournament. Netherlands are clearly a quality side and it is hoped that the calluses formed in terms of experience will come in handy for this group of American players later in the tournament.

The U.S. also showed that by ratcheting up its press, it could disrupt Netherlands’ possession game. It certainly helped that Dutch defender Stefanie van der Gragt had to leave the game at half-time due to injury. After that, Netherlands manager Andries Jonker said his team “needed the guts to play through the midfield from the back” and that when Van der Gragt went out, “the guts were less,” resulting in more long balls. But some of that was down to the U.S. doing more to impose itself on the game.

“No one was happy with our first-half performance, letting them have the ball a little bit too much,” Horan said. “But then we changed things and I’m proud of our team and how we responded and getting that goal.”

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But there are still plenty of issues that the U.S. needs to address. The drop-off from the team with Lavelle on the field to the one without is steep. DeMelo seemed to wilt under the physical attention she was given by Groenen & Co., and the U.S. attack looked disjointed until Lavelle’s introduction. At that point, and much like the game against Vietnam, the tempo was raised, and the U.S. looked more dangerous as a result.

As for why Lavelle didn’t start, U.S. manager Vlatko Andonovski said she was on a time limit of about 45 minutes, but are there really no other alternatives at this point? Apparently not, meaning the U.S. will be praying to the soccer gods that Lavelle continues to build her fitness.

Then there’s the issue of the effectiveness and chemistry of the Americans’ front three of Sophia Smith, Alex Morgan and Trinity Rodman. Andonovski said he believed his front three were “dangerous, created opportunities and were a handful,” but it seems more obvious with each game that Smith is much more comfortable as a central striker. When given the ball out wide, Smith’s deliveries are too often off target and when she goes at defenses, she has a tendency to dribble into trouble.

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Rodman is also a winger, who is less provider and more goal scorer. Nothing wrong with that, but on this day, she struggled to make an impact, losing the ball a team-high 36 times. And when presented with a clear look at goal in the 82nd minute, she pulled her shot wide. While Smith did set up Rodman for that chance, both players were guilty of taking too much time on the ball, with an extra touch resulting in the delivery window for a cross or pass closing. All of this contributes to Morgan not getting quality service.

Andonovski said that these days Morgan is more of a playmaker than she’s been in the past. That is all well and good, but the U.S. needs a few more clubs in its attacking bag than set pieces and Morgan as playmaker.

Looking to his bench might have solved this problem. Lavelle was the only sub used by Andonovski and he explained that, with the U.S. on the front foot in the second half, he didn’t want to upset the team’s rhythm. But this match seemed to be crying out for a wild card like Lynn Williams or Alyssa Thompson, especially as Rodman was looking gassed late on. The knockout stages may very well require more risk-taking — and faith in the U.S. bench — late in matches.

The U.S. manager insists that chemistry among the front three will develop. That will have to be the case, as the U.S.’ World Cup hopes depend on it.

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