AUCKLAND, New Zealand — The U.S. players diagnosed their debilitating ills before coaches had even reached the locker room. They jogged off a field in Wellington last Thursday after a dispiriting first half. As their Dutch counterparts strolled toward the tunnel, leading 1-0, the Americans moved with purpose, and then began hashing out flaws. Starters shared perspectives from the heat of battle. Reserves shared sideline viewpoints. Coaches eventually shared video. All involved were “very direct,” midfielder Andi Sullivan recalled. And although the conversations were nuanced, the overarching diagnosis was simple.
“We weren’t in sync,” Sullivan admitted two days later.
They looked like a shell of their once-dominant selves because their press lacked coordination and aggression. The USWNT used to strangle teams by defending from the front. On Thursday, they attempted to press out of a mid-block, but “I saw indecision everywhere,” former forward Tobin Heath said on her postgame show.
“We were looking for somebody else to do something,” Heath said. “Everybody was kinda looking around — like, ‘Who steps? Do you step? Do I step? How do we get the ball?’ And it looked like we were being toyed with.”
An effective press requires 11 in-sync players. It requires understanding and trust. Forwards read certain “triggers” — a back-pass, for example, or a loose touch — and sprint at opposing defenders; teammates take those cues and follow, shutting off passing lanes, and suffocating opponent attacks before they begin. A coordinated effort can force turnovers, and disrupt an opponent’s coordinated movements or dissuade fluidity.
But the U.S. did hardly any of that in Thursday’s first half, especially after the opening 10 minutes. It failed to get pressure on the ball, which permitted the Dutch time and space to create midfield overloads. One of those overloads created a goal — and sparked all sorts of questions about the USWNT’s tactical readiness at this 2023 World Cup.
“We knew that the Netherlands — they weren’t gonna be a massive threat,” Heath, a two-time World Cup winner and soccer junkie, said. “I thought we were more of a threat to ourselves, with our decision-making defensively, than they could’ve been to us.”
How the Netherlands broke down the USWNT
The Netherlands set up in a 3-5-2 that, on paper, matched the USWNT’s 4-3-3 player-for-player. The U.S. defended with forwards on center backs, fullbacks on wingbacks, center backs on strikers, and midfield three versus midfield three.
But the U.S. knew that Lieke Martens (No. 11), a playmaker shoehorned into a striker role, would drop into midfield to create something of a 3-4-2-1 shape. Players were prepared for this, Sullivan said — “we watch a lot of film.”
Their apparent plan to cope with it was multifaceted. Sullivan would shuttle side to side, between Martens and Dutch No. 10 Daniëlle van de Donk, as best she could. Her midfield partners would also shut off passing lanes; fullbacks could pinch in from the weak side; center backs could step in to prevent Martens or van de Donk from turning.
All of those solutions, however, depended on U.S. forwards putting pressure on the ball.
Without that pressure, the Dutch had time to swing the ball side-to-side and manipulate the U.S. midfield. Martens had time to sneak into pockets of space; defenders had time to pick their heads up and find her. And all of that happened in the critical 16th minute.
The Dutch dragged the U.S. to the far sideline. Sullivan slid over, shadowing van de Donk, leaving Martens on the weak side, seemingly inaccessible.
But then the Dutch swung the ball back to center back Stefanie van der Gragt. U.S. forwards rotated without urgency. Van der Gragt had space to stride into, and time to pick up her head. When she did, she saw U.S. right back Emily Fox pulled toward the sideline by her opposite number, and Sullivan stretched between van de Donk and Martens, leaving the latter free.
Martens received the ball on the half-turn and skipped by Sullivan, into acres of space. Orange jerseys flooded forward, and pretty soon led 1-0.
Sullivan acknowledged two days later that, “honestly, I needed to do my job better, and just commit and get over faster. I think that happened a few times in the first half that I would wanna fix.”
But she also needed help from teammates. A coherent press would have given her time to get over, and would’ve allowed the USWNT to get a grip on the game. Instead, the U.S. lost touch with it; the Dutch dictated it. The goal wasn’t an isolated incident. For long stretches, the U.S. front five couldn’t even get close to the ball.
“We got a little bit stretched, and weren’t getting that much pressure on them,” defender Naomi Girma said.
The result was an overwhelmed midfield, “but I think that starts with our front line,” Heath noted. And it’s what the players hustled into halftime knowing they needed to sort out.
‘It was more about being in sync with one another’
They largely did sort it out, and improved in the second half, and earned a 1-1 draw — though an injury to van der Gragt and some conservative Dutch tweaks helped.
“In the second half, we came out a lot more on the same page,” midfielder Savannah DeMelo said. “We all needed to go together or we all needed to stay together. And it was more about being in sync with one another.”
The worry, though, is that they failed to adjust on the fly and failed to get it right from the start.
Some players have cited their relative unfamiliarity with one another. In 2019, the USWNT’s starting 11 was essentially set nine months in advance; four years later, it’s been in flux. “A lot of other years, we’ve had a consistent group in the whole time,” forward Megan Rapinoe said Sunday. Whereas this time around, “we’ve had players coming back from injury, we’ve had different lineups, we’ve had players playing with a lot of different people around them, and not having that consistency.
“So, I don’t think this is anything that anybody was really worried about,” she added. “We knew we were gonna have to build into the tournament, and just understand that’s where we are.”
But the time for building has almost elapsed. The time to get in sync is now. The U.S. likely won’t win this World Cup without a coordinated press. Systematizing it requires communication but also shared understanding and belief. Forwards must know and trust that midfielders and defenders will follow their lead — but midfielders and defenders can only follow instinctively when forwards trigger the press consistently at agreed-upon moments.
“It’s always like a chicken-egg situation, right?” Sullivan explained. “Like, if you don’t step high enough, then it’s hard for people behind you to read. And if people behind you aren’t reading it, then it’s hard for you to go.”
All of that, for 11 players that had never shared the field as a single unit until this month, is “definitely a challenge that we’re going through,” Sullivan said.
Portugal, on Tuesday, in a game that the U.S. can’t afford to lose, likely isn’t talented enough to expose the Americans like the Dutch did. It’s also “a lot more conservative than aggressive,” U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski said Monday. A more impactful fix in Tuesday’s game, Rapinoe argued, will be attacking width. “I think we got quite narrow against the Netherlands, and it enabled them, even when they got tired towards the end of the game, to still get players around the ball, and stop our creative flow quite a bit,” she said. “Positional discipline” in the attacking phase will spread the Portuguese defense and unlock space in which the USWNT can “playmake” and flourish.
Before long, though, more elite opponents will come knocking. Some, such as Spain, would be far more potent than the Netherlands. The U.S. can’t afford 45 minutes of indecision and discombobulation.
Andonovski, when asked Monday about how he plans to synchronize things moving forward, noted that Rose Lavelle’s introduction as a second-half substitute “helped with some of those triggers and aggressive pressing.” Lavelle, who has been on a minutes restriction since recovering from a knee injury, should start against Portugal and beyond.
But Andonovski seemed to believe that the U.S. problems stemmed from the Dutch goal. “I think actually it started well in the beginning,” he said. “The moment we got scored on, there was a little bit of hesitation. And when you go in to press, if one player hesitates, that kills the press. So, it just became a chain effect. One player hesitated, and then that affects the next player, so the next player starts hesitating, and obviously it results in the way it did, where Netherlands just took the game over.”