After two dominant games against less experienced teams ranked outside of the world’s top 30 by FIFA, the United States women’s national team is about to face arguably its first real test of the 2019 Women’s World Cup.
Sweden is up next Thursday in Le Havre, prompting questions about whether the U.S. defense is fully prepared after having little to do during 13-0 and 3-0 victories over Thailand and Chile, respectively.
“Yeah, maybe defensively we haven’t been tested as much, but I think we’re all in really good form and hitting our stride, and I think we’re going to be ready when the time comes,” U.S. defender Abby Dahlkemper said Tuesday. “We’re just excited about this next challenge, and I guess we’ll see.”
The one time Chile got behind the U.S. back line Saturday off a set piece, goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher made a mistake by rushing off her line and diving for but missing the ball, which flew past her and into the net.
It was a hold-your-breath moment for U.S. fans, but the goal did not count because the referee called Carla Guerrero offside.
Defender Ali Krieger, who started as part of a rotated lineup against Chile, said the U.S. was caught off guard in that moment.
“They kept dropping and then stepping and dropping, so I was a bit unsure as well,” Krieger said. “We just need to clean up those little details and be prepared on those set pieces, but I think we did well – and if she was offside, she was offside, and it got called back and we move on.”
U.S. coach Jill Ellis was asked after the Chile game if she was concerned Naeher has not had to face many shots through the first two matches, giving her limited preparation for what lies ahead.
Ellis did not comment specifically on Naeher, but on the team in general.
“The next game in front of us is going to be a really challenging game,” Ellis said. “Sweden is a fantastic team, good transition team, strong, pacy team, good on set pieces. So in terms of I think getting us prepared, I think it’s a perfect game in that regard. Different demands from what we’ve just certainly experienced.”
Sweden beat the U.S. in the 2016 Olympics by sitting back on defense to keep the game scoreless and force a penalty shootout. The country’s game has evolved a bit since then, and the Swedes are a bit more proactive on attack.
The Americans’ game has evolved as well, but it still is criticized for a defense that doesn’t compare to their world-class attack.
Attacker-turned-defender Crystal Dunn said she’s confident in her back line against any country’s attack and the team has made big strides overall since that 2016 loss.
“We’ve just become a more complete team,” Dunn said. “Everything we do now is about 11 players on the field being tuned in. It’s not about defending just a back four and a six, it’s about: Are we defending as a unit? Are we attacking as a unit? And I think that’s something that I’m really happy where this team is going because we all hold each other accountable.
“The ball in the back of the net doesn’t come from somebody just missing one tackle. It comes from breakdowns all over the pitch. And I think what we’ve really done way better these last couple of years is just everyone holding their hand up and being like, Ya know what? I can do this a little bit better to prevent this next thing from happening.”