[Insert LOUD AUDIBLE SIGH here]
What a week-and-a-half stretch for women's soccer.
It started with the distressing and infuriating revelations of systemic abuse and misconduct in the NWSL in the Sally Yates report at the beginning of last week. Then it had a spark of much-needed joy from the electrifying atmosphere at a sold-out Wembley as the US. women's national team faced England. Now the stretch has ended with back-to-back losses for the USWNT in Europe -- a 2-1 loss to England and a 2-0 loss to Spain.
That 2-0 loss on Tuesday came against a Spain team that was missing 15 key players due to a fight with their federation, by the way, and the USWNT's performance was simply put:
poopy sloppy. On top of it, add in this stat: the last time the U.S. women had lost two games in a row with the opponent scoring multiple goals was in 2001. Then? Welp, it is downright depressing.
It does, however, give you a glimpse at how remarkable the U.S. dominance has been in women's soccer over the past few decades. This double loss marked only the third time the USWNT has lost consecutive matches in the last 20 years. And as much as I hate to break it to U.S. diehards out there, that dominance was predicated on a global soccer ecosystem that essentially did not care much about women's soccer while millions of girls here in the U.S. had the opportunity to play -- thank you Title IX.
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We have known that once the world catches on to how awesome (and profitable) women's soccer is, the U.S. team's future would be complicated (read: challenged). What we are seeing in Europe with the women's game is actually long overdue -- European leagues and clubs are investing in women and their teams. They are finally watering that garden which we always knew would blossom.
Raise your hand if you are surprised that, when thoughtful investment was put into the women's professional game, these players were able to play year round, which means they got fitter/faster/better, and teams started to win, and people started to show up to games, and sponsors started to love what they saw in this passionate, committed fan base, and TV networks started to put the games on TV -- and not in the middle of the night. (No former player or woman is raising their hand, by the way.) And so, more people started to watch, and ratings started to rise, and more sponsors wanted to get involved, and more girls started to play and get better, and then FIFA thought, "Well, why haven't we been supporting women all this time?" Just kidding about that last part -- FIFA never thought that.
These players have gotten so good that a Spanish B-team -- missing 15 of its top players -- had no real issue dismantling the reigning World Cup Champions. The professionalization of women's football in Europe has created national teams that have become a real challenge for the United States. That is the new reality, and they are only going to get better. FACTS (as my kids say).
Sure, there are plenty of excuses we can point to regarding the U.S. team's poor performances in the losses to England and Spain: The end of a long professional season; the many key players missing on the U.S. side (harder to argue when Spain missing 15 of their stars); the emotional, mental, and physical toll of the Sally Yates report; the continued transition on the U.S. team to a younger generation of players...
But, in large part, I think we are simply starting to see just how good Europe has become. I honestly thought this would happen much faster, but I am grateful we are finally here. And not only have European teams improved, they are not afraid of the mighty USA -- that much is clear. (Just wait until Brazil and South America catch on -- admittedly that is taking far too long, but look out when it does).
And because of that, the U.S. team is going to look at these stats and these performances and know it absolutely must be better. Here is what stood out to me:
• Against England, the USWNT had its lowest possession since 2016, just 31%, and I saw a stat that blew my mind: England dominated the midfield battle by completing 616 passes compared to the USWNT's 260.
• Our ESPN Stats & Information also reported that after the Spain game, "The USWNT has not completed a through-ball for the third straight game." (Yes, I double-checked that one with the stat crew).
• The U.S. team also completed just 57% of its passes in the final third against Spain, its lowest percentage all year, per ESPN SIG.
In both games, the U.S. only had two shots on goal. And beyond the poor stats, they just were not creating chances, looked lethargic, and the most concerning to me, played without joy. Dare I say it? It reminded me of the Olympics. (A look at some more stats makes it clear why: against Spain, the USWNT had its first opening half without a shot on target since losing to Canada in the Olympics semifinals last year.)
No, I am not panicking, but it's only nine months until the Women's World Cup is coming in hot. The USWNT's play is simply is not sharp enough, nor aggressive enough, nor confident enough, nor saucy enough. I don't think U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski has time to look at many more players, and he needs to start to settle on a lineup (if they can stay healthy enough to do so).
So, what about a change in formation to give Andi Sullivan some help defensively? Maybe it is Lindsey Horan deeper alongside Sullivan to give the U.S. a double pivot to build out of offensively and offer some cover defensively. Maybe it is the midfield playing in a pinched-in diamond or box, and going with a 4-4-2. You still have that flank space for the outside backs to get forward, yet more support centrally to build out of and control possession against better teams. Maybe it is a five-back with wing-backs flying forward, as the Spanish team deployed so successfully against the Americans.
Now is the time to try changes in formations. Now is the time to get that U.S. swagger and joy back, and mold this team into the best in the world -- because this team has it in them to be the best in the world. But it is not enough to say the U.S. just didn't have the players available. It's not enough to say the U.S. were just a bit flat.
These two games were a gift as they exposed the need to make some changes in formation and mentality. And maybe one day the team will be thankful (well, at least appreciative) of this two game swing in Europe. Because sometimes a good smackdown is the quickest way to stand up.