The USWNT had few problems topping New Zealand on Tuesday night in front of a massive crowd in Cincinnati. Here are a handful of talking points:
1. Horan Doesn’t Need Ninety – Lindsey Horan may have just come on as a sub after Rose Lavelle’s homecoming cameo, but her impact was unmistakable in less than a quarter of an hour. A classy looping header off a Sam Mewis cross over NZL keeper Erin Nayler was a gorgeous opener, but putting a pass on a slide rule for Mallory Pugh to finish minutes later to double the U.S.’ lead was just as stunning. It’s a bit overwhelming to think that Horan is just twenty-three years old, the equivalent of some NWSL collegiate rookies or second-year players, yet also a player who has looked well on her way to making the leap towards stardom given her club and international form. While the competition for time in central midfield is deep with Carli Lloyd, Lavelle, and Morgan Brian amongst Horan’s rivals, her form and growth is making it harder to justify keeping her on the bench to begin.
2. Morgan’s Hot Streak Continues – It was aided by some self-inflicted wounds, including some particularly criminal defending and goalkeeping on the first out of the halftime break, but Alex Morgan’s Summer of Goals continued in earnest on Tuesday, with two venomous strikes early in the second half. Erin Nayler should have done better with Morgan’s first at the near post, but her second, crashing off the underside of the bar was nigh-unsavable. Morgan’s health has been a frequent worry over the past few seasons, to the point that some were wondering if she was first choice up front any more for the USWNT. However, Morgan has stayed healthy for much of the year and has been crucial in the impressive displays for the U.S. this past week as well as arguably being the difference for Orlando in their late playoff run. There are few in the world with Morgan’s finishing ability when in form, a fact she’s reiterated over the past few months. Said ability will be crucial again as the U.S. looks to defend their crown in France in 2019.
3. Americans Punish NZL Wide – New Zealand struggled in more than one area defensively on Tuesday night, but their deficiencies out wide were particularly glaring. Ria Percival was beaten for pace on more than one occasion, while captain Ali Riley has appeared to have lost the top gear that had so long defined her as one of the world’s best full-backs. Interestingly, the U.S. took different tacts to gash the Ferns in wide positions. Casey Short practically operated as a wing-back, playing high up the pitch with overlapping or underlapping runs to combined with Megan Rapinoe. Kelley O’Hara was slightly more muted but was still a threat. Short moved central at the half, giving way for Taylor Smith, with the North Carolina Courage’s first touch particularly wayward on this night. It was of little matter for the USWNT though, as they used Mallory Pugh on the left and substitute Lynn Williams on the right to continually leave the New Zealand full-backs trailing in their width. The shift to 4-3-3 has done much after lamentable experiments with other formations, but the ability to stretch opposing defenses in multiple ways, from full-backs or wide forwards, could be vital.
4. New Zealand’s Tactical Square Pegs in Round Holes – New Zealand struggled to inspire much offensively on Tuesday night, with their best hopes coming on set pieces or the result of the aftermath of corners. You could certainly question their approach in Colorado last week, where they waited until the eighty-fourth minute to make a single sub at altitude and used just two overall. Any hopes of the Ferns switching things up personnel wise weren’t in the offering, as they started with the same XI as the last match and confusingly stuck Hannah Wilkinson on the wing, despite ineffectual performances there at the last Women’s World Cup and questionable (to put it diplomatically) crossing ability. While Wilkinson was given some license to roam centrally, her teammates couldn’t hit her with quick direct balls to counter behind Casey Short, who frequently marauded up the touchline behind Wilkinson. New Zealand opted for Betsy Hassett in central midfield, with the attacking midfielder dropping deeper to ostensibly maintain possession, though it hardly worked in reality, and simply acted to give the Ferns little threat of breaking in behind Becky Sauerbrunn and Abby Dahlkemper in central defense. NZL manager Tony Readings wasn’t particularly impressive in my eyes in Canada in 2015 and hasn’t done much to solve his nation’s stagnating form, at least tactically, on this evidence.
5. Soccer City USA – With apologies to Portland, Seattle, and Atlanta, there are few hotter soccer markets than Cincinnati, with FC Cincinnati setting ever higher bars for what’s achievable in terms of fan support for a non-top division soccer club. It seemed only natural for the USWNT to make a return to the Queen City for the first team in nearly a decade, with the return of hometown product Rose Lavelle another important touchstone for the development of the game within the city. With the reported attendance of 30,596 a high for the USWNT since Abby Wambach’s farewell game in New Orleans drew 32,950 at the end of 2015. With Lavelle’s profile likely to continue to rise as well as the big number on a Fall weeknight, it seems highly unlikely that it’ll be another nine years before the USWNT finds itself back in Cincinnati.