As the U.S. women’s national team heads into the Olympic Games, just about everything is lining up for the Americans.
Outside of midfielder Julie Ertz, the team is healthy, and the expectation is that even she’ll be ready by the time the games begin. Livewire attacker Tobin Heath is nearing full fitness, while Christen Press is in fantastic form with three goals in her last four games. The U.S. cruised through its final two tune-up games, recording a pair of 4-0 victories over an overmatched Mexico side to extend its unbeaten streak to 44 games.
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“To me it’s always going to be about precision,” said U.S. captain Becky Sauerbrunn following Monday’s match. “But I think we’ve made a lot of strides, especially in the final third with that precision. I think you saw in these last two games, a lot of combination plays, some third man runs, some really good runs behind the backline and some great finishes, so I think that’s something that we’ve really been focusing on and feel really good about that. So form, on and off the field, I think we’re in a really good spot.”
And yet in Monday’s match against Mexico, manager Vlatko Andonovski appeared to be consulting his own soccer version of the “Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook”, breaking out multiple formations, including a 5-4-1 at the end to simulate protecting a one-goal lead late in a match. The idea is for every possible eventuality to be accounted for.
“It’s not just executing it here, but also creating pictures and using it as a learning opportunity, so we can furthermore analyze it and see what the distances between the players are horizontally, what the distances are vertically,” he said. “Well, how are they covering for each other? So it’s not just the actual play as much as everything else that comes along with it.”
He added, “I feel like we’re prepared. And I feel like we are moving in the right direction, and slowly but surely we’re fulfilling all the tasks necessary to be fully prepared for the Olympics.”
But Andonovski’s approach also speaks to the degree that the U.S. women are favored to take home gold. While the road to victory at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup had a handful of tense moments, rarely was there a “the U.S. could lose this game” vibe. Rather, there was more a sense of inevitability about the Americans’ march to the title. If that success is repeated in Tokyo, the U.S. will become the first women’s side to follow up a World Cup win with Olympic gold.
So can the USWNT be stopped? The impulse is to say no. The team is too talented and too deep to miss out on the top spot on the podium. The attack in particular, with the likes of Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan joining Heath and Press, can hurt teams in a variety of ways, be it skill or brute force. The IOC also reportedly appears set to do the U.S. a favor by expanding the rosters from 18 to 22 players, even though only 18 can suit up on a given game day. That will only increase the depth advantage the U.S. has.
But the U.S. isn’t without weaknesses, even if they take an electron microscope to detect. Goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher has largely been solid since taking over for Hope Solo following the 2016 Olympics, but there is still a perception that the position is one where the U.S. isn’t as loaded compared to the rest of the side.
Naeher did deliver in a huge way in the 2019 World Cup semifinal against England, saving Steph Houghton’s potentially game-tying penalty. Prior to that, however, there were shaky moments against Chile and Spain. Even in Sunday’s game, Naeher wasn’t as commanding as one would like, failing to come near a fifth-minute delivery, though the play was ultimately deemed offside. Her club form has been spotty, as well.
Will it matter though?
“I don’t think the goalkeeping for the United States, for this team, in this period, has to win games for us,” said current University of North Carolina women’s head coach Anson Dorrance, who managed the U.S. to the inaugural World Cup title in 1991. “I think the requirement that [Naeher] has is to not lose the game for us, and I don’t think she’ll lose the game for us. I think she’s fully capable of being very conscientious in her decision-making in what she has to do. I think she’s up to that task.”
There are questions about whether the U.S. have enough speed in the back — outside of Crystal Dunn of course. In a footrace or one-versus-one situation, the U.S. can be had.
“If you’ve got to put a microscope on the U.S. team, that’s where I would put it, the lack of speed in the middle,” said North Carolina Courage manager Paul Riley. “I think if they played against the Courage, for instance, I think we’d cause some trouble with Jessica McDonald, Lynn Williams and Debinha, and that kind of pace coming at them and getting behind them. But I don’t know if the other teams have got that kind of speed.”
But Dorrance notes with regard to Sauerbrunn that “the first five yards are played with your head” and that both Sauerbrunn and Abby Dahlkemper are exceptional in reading the game.
Besides, exposing that weakness will require opponents breaking the U.S. team’s vaunted press, which is easier said than done, especially in terms of getting past the American midfield. The U.S. central trio — comprised from three of Sam Mewis, Lindsay Horan, Rose Lavelle and Ertz — tends to dominate on the ball as well.
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“I think the maturity of the midfield, they’ve come of age to me,” said Riley. “I think everyone realized that maybe three years ago, four years ago, they weren’t the group that they are now. They’re very dominant now, and I don’t think the U.S. has ever had a midfield this good to be perfectly honest with you. And I think that’ll be the difference between them and everybody else, plus the depth obviously. But I do think the midfield will dominate every game.”
Adding to the sense that the U.S. is a heavy favorite is which teams won’t be at the Olympics. The vagaries of qualifying from Europe, in which the finish at the World Cup determines who qualifies for the Olympics, means that neither second-ranked Germany nor third-ranked France will be in Tokyo.
But such is the nature of tournament soccer that an underdog can have its day. That was what happened in 2016 when Sweden knocked the U.S. out at the quarterfinal stage by bunkering and then hitting the U.S. on the break, and ultimately winning on penalties.
In terms of which teams have the skill to play through the press, Brazil, Japan and Netherlands have that kind of ability. Teams like Canada, Sweden and Australia can have success if they go more direct. Canada in particular created some clear opportunities in transition during last February’s SheBelieves Cup but couldn’t convert.
Therein lies the challenge of beating the USWNT. An opponent will have to do everything right, and not have their weaknesses exploited. The Americans don’t need to be at their best.
Being just good enough will get the U.S. gold, and a place in the history books.