Overseas trip puts USA in right mood for defending World Cup in France

Suzanne Wrack on 20 November 2018

Since the United States lifted the World Cup in Canada in 2015 their journey towards next summer’s title defence has been littered with potholes. This year, however, something has clicked. They have won 18 of their 20 matches – draws against France and Australia in the SheBelieves Cup and Tournament of Nations respectively came in friendly competitions that they won – and despite the progress of their competitors it is hard to look past them retaining their crown.

USA have spent much of the year on home soil but the decision to bring the team to Europe for their final games (1-0 victories this month against Portugal and the first-time World Cup qualifiers Scotland) and plans for another European double-header in January seem a shrewd move to prepare for an intense six weeks in France next summer.

“It was really important,” says the manager, Jill Ellis. “We haven’t been on the road since last summer. When you come into a stadium and you don’t get the energy from the crowd – it’s not your crowd – you have to find that internal motivation.

“Sometimes pitches are different – the whole experience has been valuable for us. To come over and play these games was really important. We’ll come again in January, but I thought it was important for us to come at least twice before the World Cup, over to Europe, and experience the time zone, food, everything.”

The 2015 and 2016 Fifa player of the year, Carli Lloyd, agrees: “I’m a big believer in getting out of our comfort zone. It’s easy for us when we play at home because we’ve got 15-20,000 fans cheering our names. When you come on the road it’s difficult.”

The trip was a vital test for the team on the pitch too. Although USA played some of the best teams in the world in friendly competitions in the first half of the year, they did not come up against the sort of opposition they are likely to meet in the early stages of the tournament: teams who will sit deeper and deny them space.

“It’s exactly what we needed, a highly organised team sitting a little low on us, forcing us to find the ebb and flow of that game,” says Ellis.

For Crystal Dunn that is one of the most useful takeaways from the year she spent at Chelsea before joining the NWSL Shield champions, North Carolina Courage, in February. “What I noticed playing in England was I was playing with teams that sit in and bunker in, versus playing in the US where you’re playing against teams that create a lot of space because it’s so back and forth and so transitional. It’s made me a well-rounded player.”

Crystal Dunn believes her time at Chelsea made her a ‘well-rounded player’.
Crystal Dunn believes her time at Chelsea made her a ‘well-rounded player’. Photograph: Gualter Fatia/Getty Images

Dunn is not the only USA player to have taken her experiences in Europe back into the USWNT fold. Lloyd, with Manchester City, and Alex Morgan, with the Champions League winners, Lyon, are others.

Morgan, who scored 12 goals in her 16 games with the French champions, has a satisfying 18 goals in 2018 for the national team. Although she was shifted to the wing against Scotland she is likely to spearhead the USA charge in France.

“I think that this is my best play with the national team thus far,” Morgan said after facing Scotland. “But I still think there’s some room for evolution. I played a full 90 minutes as a winger. I drifted at times to No 9, but winger was my position tonight and it was great for me to feel that out. Knowing that Megan [Rapinoe] is our winger on the left-hand side I want to be up as that No 9, but I’ll do whatever I’m called upon to do.”

Ellis has not been afraid to tinker in the four years since the triumph in Canada, at one stage provoking players into voicing their misgivings to US Soccer.

However, the squad has been more settled this year and it shows on the pitch. Injuries have forced some change but that has ended up a positive, with a bigger pool to choose from at just the right time. “It’s a great problem to have,” Ellis says. “We’ve dealt with a lot of injuries and that almost forced us to seek and look a little deeper. But we come out of this year with good depth and availability in different positions.

Jill Ellis believes injuries have helped blood new players and increased her squad’s depth.
Jill Ellis believes injuries have helped blood new players and increased her squad’s depth. Photograph: Malcolm Mackenzie/ProSports/REX/Shutterstock

“I think we’ve settled. We have a system, how we want to play, how we want to look. The players have a good understanding of that, on both sides of the ball. Now it’s just about getting better at what we do.

“A lot of what we’ve done has been designed and engineered towards the strength of our players and I think that’s what makes us a tough team. We’ve got a lot of different tools and it’s just about coming out next year sharper.”

Talking points

• The Africa Women Cup of Nations delivered its biggest shock on day two as holders and favourites Nigeria were beaten 1-0 by South Africa, with Houston Dash’s Thembi Kgatlana the scorer. Zambia top Group B after a 5-0 win over Equatorial Guinea, while Cameroon and hosts Ghana got off to winning starts in Group A with victories against Mali and Algeria respectively.

• European champions Lyon rescued a point against PSG after a calamitous error by goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi. The keeper gifted the ball to Lyon’s Wang Shuang who rounded her and slotted home the opener in the 15th minute before Wendie Renard put the league leaders level.

• At the top of Liga Feminina Iberdrola, England’s Toni Duggan scored an injury-time winner for Barcelona against title rivals, and holders, Atlético Madrid. Kenti Robles had given Atleti, who now lead the table by a point, the lead before Aitana Bonmatí equalised and Duggan struck late.

Toni Duggan scored an injury-time winner for Barcelona against Atlético Madrid.
Toni Duggan scored an injury-time winner for Barcelona against Atlético Madrid. Photograph: Bagu Blanco/BPI/REX/Shutterstock

• Arsenal have confirmed that England midfielder Jordan Nobbs suffered an ACL rupture in her left knee during the club’s 4-0 win at Everton. The injury is a massive blow to Phil Neville’s Lionesses before the Women’s World Cup and to the Gunners’ title charge.

• Cambridge City and Cambridge United will have to replay their FA Cup first round tie after United complained about the size of their city rivals’ pitch. Match officials were made aware of the concerns before the tie, which City won 2-1, and the FA has upheld the protest of the visitors who found the pitch to be almost 14% smaller than the minimum requirements.

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