Defense! Defense! Defense! Why the focus has shifted for USWNT at the World Cup

Jun 30, 2019

  • Graham HaysespnW.com

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      Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

PARIS — To win one of the most anticipated games in its history, the United States women’s national team ditched any artistry on a sweltering night in Paris. Megan Rapinoe scored two opportunistic goals, and the U.S. erected its barricade against a French team — willed on by tens of thousands of fans — that tried to break through.

The Americans entrusted their fate to a defensive effort led by the least known among the star-studded starting lineup. First with four defenders, and then with five in front of the goalkeeper, the Americans withstood surge after surge in a 2-1 win.

It wasn’t necessarily beautiful, but it was glorious.

“I haven’t seen too many pretty games in the World Cup, I’ll be honest with you,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said afterward. “It’s hard. It’s really hard.”

Against an opponent whose recent goal-scoring prowess in the rivalry meant it was as responsible as any team in reducing the Americans’ back line to a question mark entering the World Cup, that line’s answer was emphatic. Abby Dahlkemper, Crystal Dunn, Kelley O’Hara and Becky Sauerbrunn fit together Friday like a group peaking at the right time. For the line and its leader, this was affirmation.

“In a World Cup, I think you need to be able to win pretty and win dirty,” said Becky Sauerbrunn, the defensive conductor who has made 162 career appearances. “And sometimes you just have to put in a hard shift. Tonight was one of those nights where we put in a hard shift.”

For the past three years, the U.S. had tried to assemble a team to compete with the direction the sport is moving in. The Americans, along with the other teams that make up the rest of this year’s World Cup semifinals, have emphasized a wealth of attacking options and emerging midfield talent. The U.S. produced a different look than it did four years ago, when the eventual champions put together a shutout streak of more than 500 minutes during the World Cup.

That team only grudgingly shed a conservative approach midway through the tournament, still a point of criticism for many with Ellis. This team always placed the back line in more peril — asked to cover more ground and react quicker, even as opposing attacks grew more sophisticated.

“It’s so much more not focused on where the ball is and focused on where my teammates are,” Sauerbrunn said before the World Cup. “Before, we were defending a little bit farther back, so everything was staying in front of me, and I didn’t have a lot of space behind. But now, we’re expected to press as high as possible, so I have to take care of the 60 yards behind me, which is just a different game.”

That was less the case Friday night. The challenge against France was more concentrated. Kadidiatou Diani, Eugenie Le Sommer and Amel Majri were in the U.S. end for much of the night. It was about keeping them from rolling up the American flanks. It was keeping track of Amandine Henry and Gaetane Thiney in the middle.

England is scarcely less dangerous, especially coming off a comprehensive win against Norway. But there will be more moments of high pressure from the U.S. There will be more moments like a telling one in the 16th minute against France, when O’Hara got caught up the field after a heavy first touch. The sight of both Majri and Le Sommer running free down the left side shifted the remaining three defenders over.

Majri passed to Valerie Gauvin at the top of the 18-yard box, and Gauvin’s beautiful quick turn should have opened her up for a clean shot. Instead, Sauerbrunn read the turn and blocked the shot that then skittered harmlessly back toward midfield.

“It shouldn’t feel like a high-wire act,” Sauerbrunn said this spring. “When Jill first introduced this idea of high pressure, it did feel like a high-wire act, that I was exposed. And that’s just because we hadn’t figured everything else out. You can’t really just teach high pressure as a whole; it has to be line from line. We started with the front line, we did the midfield line, and [then] we really focused on the back line and how you pressure, what’s expected, what spaces you protect.”

So much of what the U.S. is defensively starts with Sauerbrunn. Overshadowed by her own teammates with bigger public personas and overshadowed at her own position by the player she went up against Friday night, Wendie Renard, she has been as good a defender as there is in the world for most of this decade.

“I can’t articulate how good of a player she is, and how much of a presence she brings — not only to the back line, but to the field,” O’Hara said during this tournament. “Her leadership, consistency, kind of just steely nerves, I love playing with her.

“I don’t think she gets as much respect or attention as she should.”

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Check out a LEGO recreation of how the United States held off France to earn a place in the World Cup semifinals.

And she was the constant in all the change over the past three years. Including goalkeeper, where Alyssa Naeher replaced Hope Solo, Sauerbrunn is the only person from the back five in the 2015 World Cup or 2016 Olympics who is still starting in the same role. Julie Ertz shifted to the midfield, replaced by Dahlkemper. Dunn and O’Hara replaced Meghan Klingenberg and Ali Krieger as the first-choice outside backs.

Yet, even that group of defenders started together just four times in 11 warm-up games this year because of injuries to various members. If there is continuity, it is largely down to Sauerbrunn.

Ellis changed up the captaincy a year ago, shifting from Sauerbrunn and Lloyd to Lloyd, Rapinoe and Alex Morgan. Ellis said this spring that the move was simply about “investing in additional leadership” and not a reflection on Sauerbrunn. For her part, Sauerbrunn said that as much as wearing the armband is an honor, not having it doesn’t diminish her voice.

Those who play closest to her seem to agree.

“I feel like she is somebody that it doesn’t matter who she is playing next to,” Dunn said. “She is going to give you that confidence to be at your best.”

That is quite a journey for someone who didn’t have much confidence in herself growing up, let alone the surplus needed to instill it in others. The national team is a collection of personalities. Tobin Heath thinks about soccer as art. Christen Press ponders the philosophical conundrum of defining happiness through competition. Rapinoe speaks her mind. The unifying theme isn’t that they embraced a uniform outlook as they progressed through soccer, but that they embraced their own identity. Even if that’s a bookworm at a position that demands vocal leadership.

Likely the team’s most voracious reader, Sauerbrunn still loves to escape to the science fiction and fantasy worlds of the books she prefers — theater companies traveling across a postapocalyptic landscape or con artists in an alien world. But she also increasingly shapes the world she inhabits, on the field with teammates or off the field as one of the voices in the fight for equal pay.

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten so much more comfortable in my own skin,” Sauerbrunn said. “I’ve embraced that I am introverted and I do need time away from people. And that I am a little weird, and that’s fine. I love being weird. That’s also shown itself on the field, that I feel more confident out there and I can brush off mistakes a lot easier than I used to.

“I feel good and secure enough to tell people where I feel they need to be to make sure the team is doing the right thing.”

The U.S. needed both of its goals to get through to the semifinals. It needed Rapinoe to again seize the moment. But it says something that the photo she chose to post on her Instagram feed the morning after was the embrace she shared with Sauerbrunn after the final whistle.

Or that among comments was one from Dahlkemper with double goat emojis for two of the greatest of all time.

“One of the biggest things that I’ve noticed, that I’ve come to really appreciate about Becky, is her consistency,” Dahlkemper said recently. “Her positioning and just being this solid defender all the time, it’s something that I think is very rare.

“I think that she is the best defender in the world, and she makes people around her better.”

They were all good Friday. All four defenders at the start and all five when Ertz dropped back between them. They will all need to be good from here on out. Not just good individually, but good collectively.

At least now they know it can be done. They can hold the barricade.

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