The U.S. women's national team wrapped up a mini European tour over the weekend, getting wins against Sweden on Thursday and Norway on Sunday. With two 1-0 friendly wins, the USWNT comes away from the overseas trip able to say it was a success, which the team sure needed after some of their results over the last year.
Here are seven takeaways from the European tour:
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The USWNT proved how good they can still be
Over the past year, the USWNT has given fans and pundits reasons to doubt the team's dominance. The Americans crashed out of last summer's Olympics for their worst major tournament ever, and then they had a historically bad SheBelieves Cup against France, Germany and England, the world's top teams. But the USWNT is still capable of beating pretty good teams when the team gets it tactics right (or a bit more right), and the European matches over the weekend proved it.
With 1-0 wins each over Sweden, ranked No. 6, and Norway, ranked No. 11, on European soil, Ellis and the USWNT effectively silenced critics who panicked that the USWNT was far from their own No. 1 world ranking. These matches were friendlies, but both Sweden and Norway are in the thick of preparations for the European championship, which starts next month, and were in good form.
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The USWNT looks better defensively by sticking to what it knows
The SheBelieves Cup – which offered a tough test vs. France, Germany and England a couple months ago – went pretty horribly for the USWNT any way you looked at it. A large reason for that was Ellis' continued experimentation with a three-back system that the USWNT players couldn't seem to get the hang of. They were left awfully exposed, especially since Ellis' version of the system didn't rely on dedicated wingbacks, and they got easily beaten on the counter.
But lately, it's been smoother sailing for the Americans ever since they went back to a flat four on the back line. The Americans managed to shut out both Sweden and Norway during their European trip in a notable sign of progress. Sure, these were friendlies and there are still valid concerns about the way attackers could find space in behind the four-back, but getting positive results in enemy territory against some pretty attackers is a good thing anyway you spin it. The Americans looked more organized defensively and better equipped to keep attackers at bay.
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They are still figuring out the evolution of their attacking identity
Ellis may have abandoned a three-back system, whether in a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-3, but she is continuing to try different formations and tinker with the roles of the players on the pitch. In both matches, Ellis had the team play in a variation of the 4-4-2, which lined the USWNT up with a double pivot of two defensive midfielders in the central midfield. It was a sort of "empty bucket" system where the two central midfielders sat deep while the two wide midfielders played much higher.
The formations in Sweden and Norway didn't feature a true No. 10, but in both, Carli Lloyd (vs. Sweden) and Rose Lavelle (vs. Norway) played as withdrawn strikers who were able to float into that space. It seems Ellis is looking for some creativity in that role, but asking the withdrawn strikers to do it didn't generate enough. The attack still looked like a work in progress as the lines were too disjointed and slow in transition.
The USWNT still needs to figure it out and it's an ongoing process.
One of the concerns the European friendlies exposed wasn't exactly a new one: The USWNT attack often looked stagnant and players resorted to long, direct balls when they didn't have any decent options in the midfield. That's not to say the USWNT can't use the long ball effectively, because they can, but the USWNT needs to be more dynamic in the attack, finding more outlets to move the ball quickly and have players making better runs to get the ball.
Samantha Mewis and Allie Long looked good as a defensive double pivot in the central midfield – both are good at breaking up counterattacks and have good range to slip in through-balls from deep spots. But they weren't quick enough in transition and they were hamstrung from being able to add numbers higher up in the attack. Ellis needs to continue to explore the partnerships she can use in the central midfield, but she also needs to examine the way she sets the central midfield up.
Ellis has the players she needs to attack with a dedicated No. 10 playmaker and that may be the way forward. Carli Lloyd has often occupied that space for the USWNT, but she's not so much a playmaker as much as she is just a big-game player who is good at finding ways to selfishly score goals. Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh are options to pull the strings of the attack, but Ellis needs to first determine the right midfield setup to allow one of them to succeed there.
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Striker is still an open question
Heading into this pair of matches, one of the questions we asked ourselves was, "Who is the USWNT's best striker?" It's a question complicated by the fact that the USWNT's attacking tactics are under review and Ellis tends to play some of her options in positions that are different from where they play for club or college.
But Ellis seems to be willing to give the depth chart a look. Christen Press, who has often played in the midfield under Ellis, got the nod to start up top in the USWNT's match vs. Norway and scored the only goal. It seemed like maybe Ellis didn't rate Press very highly heading into the match, but Press' showing vs. Norway will give Ellis something to think about.
While Press and Crystal Dunn both played well across both games, the USWNT has plenty more options that didn't even see the field during the European friendlies: Alex Morgan is injured, Lynn Williams didn't play and Sydney Leroux is still working her way back. In other words, the striker position looks as open as ever.
The youngest players on the team just might be the best
We've seen it on the men's team: In less than one year, 18-year-old Christian Pulisic has emerged as the USMNT's best player. But before there was Pulisic, there was Mallory Pugh, who broke into the USWNT at just 17 years old. Now, it appears she is part of an influx of young players who are quickly emerging as the most exciting, promising players on the roster. Pugh, 19, looked relatively good in the first match vs. Sweden, cutting in from the flank and offering a creative spark, so much that when she was a late scratch for the second match vs. Norway, the USWNT clearly missed her influence on the left side.
Rose Lavelle, 22, is the newest youngster to make a case for herself, and she did it again on the USWNT's European tour in her fifth and sixth caps. She looks like she could be the USWNT's future No. 10, but Ellis started her as a withdrawn forward vs. Sweden. Her role was more fluid but designed to be creative and up until a hamstring injury forced her off, she was the USWNT's best, most dynamic player. It wasn't a perfect performance, but it was fitting that she scored the game-winner. She can also play from a wide area, and it's clear she belongs somewhere on the pitch.
Some newer players have seemingly emerged as starters
Casey Short made her fifth straight start as an outside back. Since she made her USWNT debut in October, she has played 10 of the USWNT's 11 matches since then. It's pretty safe to say the 26-year-old Chicago Red Stars defender has marked her spot on this team for her solid defending, her ability to play the ball out the back and the way she overlaps in the attack with ease.
She's not the only one. Crystal Dunn has been around the USWNT since 2013, when she broke through as a fullback, but her recent opportunities as a striker have made it difficult to see the team without her. Even just last year she was mostly a wide midfielder, but now Ellis has been giving her chances up top, leading the attack as a striker, and she's leading the USWNT in goals for 2017. She's versatile enough to play from anywhere, and, more and more, it appears Dunn has to be a starter, especially because there will always be a spot she can slot in.