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Can The Midfield Carry The U.S. Women’s National Team Past France?

The story of the U.S. women’s national team has almost always been its goal-scorers. In the past, the team could count on an Abby Wambach or an Alex Morgan, and when a midfielder like Carli Lloyd stepped up to support, it was her goal-scoring, again, that made the difference. The problems for the U.S. typically lie a little further back down the pitch. At the World Cup in Canada in 2015, the team needed the last-minute addition of Morgan Brian to balance its midfield and get past Germany en route to the final.

This year, the situation is reversed. Going into a match against France that could easily decide the World Cup winner, the Americans have reason to be confident in its midfield but increasingly concerned about a suddenly shaky forward line.

Manager Jill Ellis has preached an aggressive possession approach, seeking to control the ball but use that control for penetration into the attacking third. That is not an easy balance to strike, at least not without leaving the defense exposed to counterattacks, but it’s possible if your players are good enough.

Lindsey Horan came into the World Cup recognized as probably the top central midfielder in the world, and if anything, she has been outshone by her midfield mates Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle in this tournament. With this squad, Ellis has preferred a 4-3-3 formation to the team’s previous 4-4-2, effectively trading a central striker out for a central midfielder. The three-woman midfield features one deeper-lying holding midfielder and two more advanced in front of her. The team was prepared to play Julie Ertz at the base of midfield and push Horan further up the pitch, but in the final group match against Sweden, Ellis went with the Horan-Mewis-Lavelle trio.

These three were the team’s statistical standouts coming into the World Cup. Among players with at least 1,000 minutes played in international matches tracked by Opta since 2017, few midfielders can match the U.S. trio for all-around production. The three are among the very best in the world at the combination of ball-winning and ball-progression, among players with at least three tackles and interceptions won per 90 minutes as well as three progressive passes and runs per 90.1

The U.S. has solidified the middle of the field

International players* who averaged three or more progressive passes and tackles per 90 minutes, 2017-19

Per 90 Minutes
Player team Tackles and interceptions Progressive passes
Sam Mewis USA 3.29 3.67
Lina Magull Germany 3.19 3.54
Rose Lavelle USA 5.70 3.42
Lindsey Horan USA 4.81 3.28
Emily van Egmond Australia 3.27 3.27
Amandine Henry France 3.69 3.12
Jackie Groenen Netherlands 4.48 3.09
Caroline Seger Sweden 3.97 3.06

* Minimum of 1,000 minutes in matches tracked by Opta

Source: Opta

Ertz misses the chart because while she has the excellent ball-winning numbers (4.8 tackles and interceptions per 90) you would expect from a defensive midfielder, her 1.8 progressive passes per 90 reflect her lesser skill at advancing the ball.

When both Lavelle and Mewis join Horan, the U.S. is basically impossible to match up with in midfield. Each player is capable of making a defense-splitting pass or run, as well as cleaning up defensively behind whoever takes a turn attacking.

This kind of midfield production was expected from Mewis and Horan, but Lavelle has been a surprise. Despite her excellent ball-winning numbers for the national team, the smaller Lavelle has been cast typically as a “number 10,” an attacking midfielder. Playing in a 4-3-3 at the World Cup, however, Lavelle has continued to show her strength in the press, with five tackles and four interceptions in a little over 200 minutes.

In the round of 16 against Spain, Ertz got the call while Horan rested to avoid a yellow card suspension. One might suggest that Ertz’s less aggressive approach might have been responsible for the U.S.’s rather blah performance, but the statistics suggest the problem lies elsewhere. The U.S. successfully moved the ball into the final third in open play 38 times, but created only three shots from these moves. This rate — of shots created among balls in the final third — is under 8 percent, the second-lowest of any team that played in the knockouts. Seventeen of those final third entries came from direct attacking moves,2 the fourth-best total among the 16 teams in the knockouts, but only one generated a shot attempt in the move. That 6 percent success rate was the worst among the teams in the round.

Against Spain, the U.S. forwards struggled to turn dangerous possessions into scoring chances. After winning an early penalty, Tobin Heath was not effective. Heath — usually the key outlet for the U.S. in attack and a skilled dribbler — couldn’t get on the ball, playing only 16 passes (fewest of the starters) and losing two of her three take-on attempts. The most worrying number for the U.S., however, was zero. That’s the number of shots Morgan attempted against Spain. Morgan was subbed out against Sweden after taking a knock and though she returned to start against Spain, the bruising Spanish defense kept her from finding space in the penalty area or on the break.

Fortunately for the Americans, if Morgan is hurting or the wide forwards are slumping, the team’s attacking power runs deep. Carli Lloyd, Christen Press and Mallory Pugh are three of the top goal creators in the women’s game over the last few years.

The U.S. is deep in goal creators

International players* with the most open-play goals and assists per 90 minutes, 2017-2019

Player Country Goals Assists Goals and assists
Samantha Kerr Australia 1.09 0.36 1.45
Vivianne Miedema Netherlands 1.13 0.31 1.44
Caitlin Foord Australia 0.62 0.44 1.06
Ellen White England 0.68 0.23 0.91
Tobin Heath USA 0.56 0.32 0.89
Valérie Gauvin France 0.71 0.16 0.87
Alex Morgan USA 0.68 0.17 0.85
Carli Lloyd USA 0.56 0.22 0.78
Christen Press USA 0.28 0.50 0.78
Mallory Pugh USA 0.49 0.27 0.76

* Minimum of 1,000 minutes in matches tracked by Opta

Source: Opta Sports

The biggest worry for the U.S. has to be Morgan. If the Orlando Pride striker is not fully fit, she is likely to struggle again against France.

Ellis, then, faces two high-stakes decisions before the quarterfinal. First, will she roll with the more aggressive Horan-Mewis-Lavelle midfield, or will she go more conservative by deploying Ertz at defensive midfielder? The defensive strength that Horan, Mewis and Lavelle have shown in this tournament is an argument for including them and, thus, maximizing ball movement in the center of the pitch. Second, and more importantly, which forwards are ready to take on the great French defense? Heath, who probably just had an ill-timed off match, should be favored to bounce back. Morgan’s fitness is more of a worry. But however Ellis assesses her starting forwards, the options to replace one are rich and varied. Press and Lloyd would offer two different looks at striker. Pugh could spell either winger or give the team an interchanging, hard-to-mark front three.

The midfield, especially with the three best passers on the pitch, should be good enough to carry the team. But if the front line doesn’t show up, the U.S. once again risks wasting the good ball progression from midfield.



Check out our latest Women’s World Cup predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Progressive passes are defined as passes which advance the ball 10 to 15 yards beyond its furthest progression in the move or into the penalty area.

  2. Direct attacking moves are defined as sustained possession actions in which at least 50 percent of the ball movement is toward goal.

Michael Caley is a writer whose work has been featured at The Economist, ESPN, the Washington Post and elsewhere. He is the co-host of the “Double Pivot Podcast.”

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