The United States women’s national team started off 2019 with something that didn’t happen at all in 2018: a loss. A 3-1 defeat at the hands of France, followed by a difficult 1-0 victory over Spain, was enough to cause fans concern about this summer’s World Cup. There’s no reason to panic yet, but there are definitely things for fans to worry about.
The best you can say is that the Americans have history on their side. The U.S. has lost its first game of every World Cup year since 1999, including a 2015 opening loss against France. It wasn’t until that summer that the United States settled on a first 11, and an effective formation, leading to a World Cup victory.
The loss to France on Saturday, as ugly as it was, at least didn’t come with the first-choice team on the field. Coach Jill Ellis threw out a far different lineup than expected, missing all three attacking midfielders (Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath, and Rose Lavelle) and the best defensive midfielder (Julie Ertz). Predictably, the U.S. struggled to look dangerous offensively, and France had a much easier time possessing the ball in the middle of the field.
That said, the ease with which France attacked speaks to another worry for the U.S.: a lack of depth. Injuries will happen, especially with so many team stalwarts on the older side of 30. If fullbacks Crystal Dunn and Kelley O’Hara go down, what then? Emily Fox, who started at left back against France, had an extremely rough time. Emily Sonnett and Tierna Davidson also saw time in these friendlies, but is either ready for the World Cup stage?
The rest of the back line is still a concern, too. On France’s third goal, center backs Becky Sauerbrunn and Abby Dahlkemper were too far apart, leaving French striker Marie-Antoinette Katoto to run onto a simple ball between them and score.
The United States’ fullbacks will always be a worry, too, given how much is asked of them. Rapinoe and Heath — and really any winger in the U.S. system — don’t provide much defensive support, leaving outside backs on an island.
The defense looked better against Spain. The Spaniards spent more time trying to build up possession, rather than counterattacking as France had, which allowed the U.S. to defend as a group and try to spring its own counterattacks. Ertz, Lavelle and Lindsey Horan could protect the back line and press Spain in the midfield.
This is not to say that the United States controlled the match. Spain had the ball for long periods, and though it wasn’t able to crack the Americans’ defensive lines, neither was the United States able to hold on to the ball for dominating stretches. The winning goal, from halftime substitute Christen Press, may have actually been an own goal. Spain should have scored twice afterward.
The national team has eight scheduled games, along with the beginning of the NWSL season, to get into World Cup shape. Previous years have shown that there’s a long time between January and the summer. But whatever sense of invincibility the U.S. might have felt is certainly gone, Especially with regard to France, the new summer favorite.