Dour draw leaves USWNT to focus on ultimate objective with World Cup finally on tap
HARRISON, N.J. --
Clarity emerged in unmistakable form just before the opening whistle. The banner emblazoned with that precious trophy climbed toward the top of Red Bull Arena with purpose. The three-word message it carried mirrored every standard uttered by the U.S. women’s national team over the past few months ahead of their World Cup journey in Canada.
Bring It Home.
The singular purpose juxtaposed awkwardly with the proceedings to follow. There were few, if any, reasons to tab the U.S. as potential World Cup winners during the course of a drab 0-0 draw with Korea Republic on Saturday. They remain so nevertheless.
“Obviously, we wanted a different result,” U.S. forward Abby Wambach said. “We want to win every game. But knowing what’s ahead, knowing we’re on the precipice of something big, I’m not disappointed. In the long run, we’ll be fine and we’ll be ready for Canada.”
For one reason or another, the U.S. dismissed their last commitment before heading to the departure gate. The absences of Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe peeled away two key figures from the starting XI, but their omissions hardly excused the underwhelming display to follow against a limited, if organized, opponent.
No team has ever lost a World Cup with a bit of complacency before the big day, but the recurring trouble spots surfaced once again to underscore the incomplete nature of this team. The performance highlighted the lack of proper balance in midfield, reinforced the potential vulnerabilities to the counter and underscored the necessity of a healthy Morgan and Rapinoe to provide incisiveness in the final third and turn away from direct, predictable fare.
Rapinoe is expected to recover in short order from a quad injury sustained in training on Saturday, but Morgan raises considerable doubts about her potential role with each missed day. Her presence on the bench after participating in just a portion of the pre-match warmups once again points toward the lingering nature of a knee injury that continues to rob her of match practice and sharpness.
By the time the U.S. takes the field against Australia in Winnipeg on June 8, Morgan will have gone nearly two months without playing in a competitive game. Those realities make her a question mark as the tournament unfolds, not an integral part of the proceedings from the outset. Her integration into the side presents U.S. coach Jill Ellis with a delicate balancing act, particularly given the glaring need for her guile and precision inside the penalty area.
“We’re building her,” Ellis said. “Realistically, she’s been off for a while. In terms of minutes, that’s something we’re going to have to build in the early games. We want to build her up in terms of being physically ready.”
It is a lesson worth noting for every player, particularly after Ellis bizarrely cited fatigue as one of the reasons for the poor performance on the eve of a month-long tournament. There is a long, treacherous road to Vancouver ahead. It starts now, but the Americans must take their steps carefully in order to survive it.
This muted departure will not exert much impact on the challenges ahead, though it should sound a warning about the need to hit the necessary heights in every match. This team is in its finished form, more or less. At this point, the outcome hinges on how well this U.S. team can compensate for its flaws and produce at the critical moments as it has done in the past.
“Just keep doing what we’re doing,” Wambach said. “We’re not going to do anything different now that we’ve not done before. We’re going to stick to the plan. I believe in our plan. I believe in our coaching staff’s plan. And I believe in the individual brilliance that will happen within the collective mindset in Canada in nine days.”
Belief -- not any overwhelming evidence generated over this past month, particularly with this whimper of a finish -- drives this group forward. There is a sense within the ranks that this team -- even with its deficiencies, even with the pressing frailties still left to address on the eve of the tournament -- will sort things out yet again and summon the necessary performances when the stakes are at their highest.
There is no alternative at this stage. It is win or bust for this team, by their own admissions and their own standards. It is now a matter of seeing whether these players can meet their clear objective over the next few weeks or whether everything will simply come crashing down instead.