By CAITLIN MURRAY
It’s safe to say the 2014 Algarve Cup probably hasn’t been what the U.S. Women’s National Team expected.
As if a 1-0 loss to Sweden to break the USWNT’s 43-game unbeaten streak wasn’t uncomfortable enough, the No. 1 FIFA-ranked Americans got punished in a 5-3 rout by No. 13-ranked Denmark. The match set a dubious record – the most conceded goals in a single match by the USWNT ever.
Coach Tom Sermanni, who took the reins of the team last year, has plenty to think about as he looks ahead to the 2015 World Cup in Canada. But here are a few takeaways from SBI:
The USWNT is playing without chemistry
Sure, Alex Morgan is injured and Lauren Holiday couldn’t make it to the Algarve, but the USWNT still has the world’s very best attackers at their disposal. They typically dominate possession for long stretches parked in front of their opponent’s net.
Yet somehow, the USWNT has failed to finish on a rash of opportunities. In their astounding 5-3 loss to Denmark, the USWNT out-shot their opponent 22 to 9. Against Sweden in a 1-0 loss, they again out-shot, 12 to 4. In the 1-1 tie to Japan, shots were another lopsided 20 to 8.
The USWNT have been unable to make that string of passes or find that open player for the best chance on goal, perhaps due to lack of communication, lack of patience or some combination thereof. But it’s looking like the USWNT attack is struggling to adapt to the less direct, slower style of play Sermanni says he wants.
There’s plenty of time to get the USWNT’s world-class stable of forwards on board, but until then, the U.S. won’t play to its potential.
The USWNT has had some false comfort at home
Take, for instance, a pair of friendlies against No. 21-ranked Russia last month. The USWNT destroyed them 7-0 in their first match. In the next meeting, the USWNT failed to do much with the possession they controlled until Russia allowed two own-goals and then scored six goals in the final 30 minutes for an 8-0 finish.
When the U.S. hosted Brazil in November, it was a Brazilian squad testing its younger talent while their best player, Marta, stayed with her club team. The U.S. won handily, 4-1.
Against Canada to open 2014, a 1-0 victory was perhaps too close, given the talent differential. It wasn’t until late in the match – when the top-fit USWNT have their biggest advantage – that a flicker of brilliance came from Becky Sauerbrunn and Sydney Leroux to eke out a goal for the win.
Even when the USWNT played below their ability, they’ve gotten the results they’ve wanted. That’s because the USWNT simply hasn’t been tested the way Japan or Sweden can test them – at least not in quite a while. When asked by SBI earlier this year, Sermanni declined to reveal who future opponents will be for upcoming friendlies, but U.S Soccer has announced two against No. 18-ranked China in April, another weaker opponent.
The USWNT will reportedly face No. 5-ranked France in June for two domestic friendlies and Sermanni can only hope coach Philippe Bergeroo brings his best group. There will be four more friendlies hosted by U.S. Soccer in August and September and the USWNT need to lure in a top team like No. 2 Germany or No. 3 Japan if the matches will bring much insight.
The back line is far from set
In 16 games last year, Sermanni tried 14 different back lines. The experimenting hasn’t let up – in the first six games of 2014, none of the starting back quartets have been repeated.
Sermanni has made no secret of his uncertainty back there. He points to injuries last year that left some defenders out of rotation and says that inexperienced defenders need caps to step up.
But every time Sermanni is evaluating his back line, it’s a back line that has never really had a chance to gel. In that sense, it may be a little unfair to judge too harshly. But on the other hand, how long will a core group need to become a cohesive unit? When does Sermanni need to have his primary squad selected?
The back line has looked shaky against even less formidable opponents, which may invite the continual tweaking and evaluations, but Sermanni won’t be able to wait too long before picking his four.
It’s still too soon to panic
The World Cup is more than a year away. World Cup qualifiers are about seven months away.
The USWNT was reminded of its own susceptibility while there is still plenty of time to do something about it. American fans can feel relieved about that, even if the USWNT won’t place higher than seventh overall in this tournament.
What are your takeaways from the Algarve Cup so far? Can the USWNT turn things around when they play North Korea on Wednesday in their final match?
Share your thoughts below.