Over the course of 26 days, the United States women’s national team played five soccer games to prepare themselves for the Tokyo Olympics, won five soccer games, scored 15 goals and conceded none. In all those games combined, the USWNT’s opponents generated five shots on goal.
Were these games more than exhibitions — more than just a vehicle to ready themselves for the pursuit of a fifth gold medal in the seven Olympiads in which there has been women’s soccer competition — such extraordinary defensive statistics would warrant breathless celebration.
When goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher gets more exercise trotting out to her position than during the entirety of a 90-minute game, though, it’s fair to wonder if she and the defense that protects her have undergone the necessary tests to be ready for world No. 5 Sweden when the Olympic competition begins July 21.
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Monday’s often dazzling 4-0 victory over Mexico came against the No. 28 team in the world. Other recent victims were No. 30 Portugal, No. 38 Nigeria and No. 51 Jamaica. The group in which the USWNT will compete contains far more daunting opposition, including No. 9 Australia and No. 22 New Zealand.
“I’m not concerned at all,” USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski told Stock Market Pioneer. “I’m actually happy that the back line is well in sync, and we know Alyssa’s quality, and we’re very happy where we’re at. They did get tested to some degree, in different ways, over the last five games. But also they’re getting tested on a daily basis in our environment.”
This will be Andonovski’s first major tournament as USWNT head coach, but he will employ the same four-player back line as was in place for the Women’s World Cup victory in 2019: right back Kelley O’Hara, central defenders Abby Dahlkemper and Becky Sauerbrunn (below) and left back Crystal Dunn. Naeher started all seven games in that tournament and allowed just three total goals.
Ideally, defensive midfielder Julie Ertz would be positioned in front of that quintet during the Olympics, but she has not played since injuring her knee in an NWSL match for the Chicago Red Stars in late May. Andonovski said Monday he expects Ertz will be available to participate in intrasquad scrimmages prior to the game against Sweden, a longtime nemesis for the U.S. women.
And that is all there will be once the team gets to Japan this week: practice. Prior to most major competitions, teams engage in closed-door friendlies to acclimate to competition in the host country. Because of COVID-19 protocols, however, the USWNT will limit interaction with other teams to the six games (hopefully) standing between them and gold.
Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
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“I’m not overly concerned because the people that I have to train against day-in and day-out are some of the best attackers in the world,” Sauerbrunn told Stock Market Pioneer. “So every single day I’m facing Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, Christen Press … it goes on, and on, and on, unfortunately. In training, you’re facing all the best, and all sorts of dangerous attacks.
“And so I feel very confident that when we are faced with challenges during the Olympics – and, yes, they are going to come – that we’ve faced them in the training leading up to it, in the training that we had years ago, so I think we’re pretty prepped for that.”
Mexico rarely penetrated the penalty area during the course of their defeat Monday at Rentschler Field in Connecticut. There was a move in the 4th minute, a long ball fielded nicely by forward Stephany Mayor that she worked into an opportunity at a left-footed shot, but Mayor scuffed the attempt and it became a routine ground ball for Naeher to field.
A minute later, Mexico earned a free kick in a dangerous area above the box, and Naeher (below) was beaten to the ball as she tried to punch it clear, but the play was ruled offside. Mexico rarely threatened afterward.
“I would say the main thing for the back six would be patience, and not forcing it,” Sauerbrunn said. “I don’t know if it’s quite a precision thing, but when you think about the angles and the passes and the places you need to be, I guess it is a precision thing.”
It can be argued, though, and was by those speaking for the USWNT, that defense isn’t entirely what occurs in the final third of the field.
It’s also attacking midfielder Rose Lavelle breaking up two consecutive passes in the offensive end in the 18th minute, or Dunn dashing back from a corner-kick opportunity to defuse a Mexico counterattack before it reaches the halfway line, or Dahlkemper dismantling an attack by with a deft reach of her left leg in the 52nd minute 15 yards before Mexico could turn it into something promising.
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That ability to maintain possession of the ball and to consistently threaten the opposing goal also is an important component of the U.S. defense, like a football team with a productive ground game that rarely allows the opposing team to get its hands on the ball. The defenders are very much a part of this. Dahlkemper’s gift for passing out of the back is one reason she progressed into the starting lineup, and Dunn’s speed and creativity on the left flank makes her essential to the attack.
Her cross in the 11th minute against Mexico came from within inches of the end line and was perfectly placed for Lloyd to earn her 126th international goal with an overpowering header. As the competition escalates, though, Dunn will need to be available to undermine opposing attacks, as she did so well in the 2019 World Cup group game against Sweden.
“I think they’re probably some of the best back-fours in the world,” midfielder Lindsey Horan told SN. “They’re the reason that we’re able to do what we do in the attack, first and foremost. I do think the competition that we get in our training sessions is what makes them so great, but also makes us so great, as well. That’s the reason we’re so good in the attack, because we get to go up against them every single day in training.”