March 11, 2017

USWNT in search of answers after finishing last at SheBelieves Cup

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The U.S. women's national team is searching for answers after finishing last place in their own invitational tournament.

Wendi Renard spoke last week of the preparations her and others of the French national team were taking before they squared off against the world’s No.1, the U.S. women’s national team.

“We know that USA is the first nation in the world for the moment,” Renard said shortly after France’s 2-1 victory over England in the SheBelieves Cup, U.S. Soccer’s invitational tournament. “But we are working hard to change that. And we know that we are fighting against the best nations in the world. We want to prove that we are the best.”

Renard scored the winning tally against England with this cheeky header in front of goal:

And by week’s end, Renard and her French teammates would successfully prove themselves. If not the best in the world, France’s women’s team is every bit as equal or better than the U.S., whom they dominated in a 3-0 earlier this week to claim the 2017 SheBelieves Cup trophy.

Meanwhile, the U.S. women’s team finished in last place of their own tournament, and scored only a single goal in three matches. It’s the first time since 2000 the U.S. women lost successive matches, and the first time ever losing to France or England on their home field.

Many U.S. fans were left in a state of shock and began immediately searching for a scapegoat. Individual performances in the tournament began to be scrutinized: Carli Lloyd is almost exclusively blamed when scoring subsides; other players, such as Allie Long, struggled in unfamiliar positions. Manager Jill Ellis implemented a new 3-4-1-2 system after last summer’s underwhelming Olympic finish, a system that’s seemed to leave her players in a state of disrepair.

The U.S. women’s team could still very well be the best in the world, but this tournament will assure it’s no longer a default assumption. The gap between the U.S. and their rivals has never been smaller, and at this point, might no longer even exist. Women’s soccer has never been more competitive, and has never been more interconnected than it is now: Lloyd signed a short-term deal with Manchester City, Alex Morgan is playing in France at the moment, and 2015 NWSL MVP Crystal Dunn is now with Chelsea.

America kicked off this year’s SheBelieves Cup with a 1-0 win over Germany, the losses to England and France immediately followed. It’s important to note that each of the teams, including the U.S., were playing in a sort of heavy experimentation mode, with their main focuses set on the larger tournaments set to take place in the years to come. Ellis and the Americans out in search of a new strategy to deal with the developing competition. She has approached team-building, really, since the moment of her epic triumph, the 2015 World Cup victory.

“You’ve got to test your processes,” Ellis said following the win over Germany. “2019 is the endpoint, so now it’s [about] how good can we be with these pieces as we start to build. That’s why this tournament is critical for us. We don’t have the Euros. We have three of the best teams in the world coming here. And it’s the only way we can really grow. I told the players, ‘Even if you lose tonight, you come out of the game learning something.’ And that’s where the value is right now: our development.”

Of the 23 players who participated in this year’s SheBelieves Cup for the U.S., only 12 were members of the 2015 World Cup roster. These are some of the newer challenges the team is now facing, challenges that reveal solutions through defeat.

The play of Casey Short in the back, particularly in her match against Germany, confirmed to the U.S. what could be their worst possible fear: Are offenses getting too fast for the U.S. defense?

“I don’t know that I can say who’s number one right now,” Short said after the win against Germany. “We’re a couple of years out from the World Cup, and we have a couple of years to go until the next one. I do think it’s gotten a lot better, the competition, and I don’t think I can say who’s the best.”

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