Disjointed USWNT has midfield weakness exposed

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The U.S. women’s national team lost back-to-back games for the first time in five years after an uninspiring 2-0 loss to a second-choice Spain team in Pamplona on Tuesday.

Laia Codina, in her debut for the senior Spain national team, opened the scoring in the 39th minute after the U.S. twice failed to clear a corner kick that dropped in the box. Real Madrid star Esther Gonzalez added the dagger 18 minutes from time with a sweet volley after floating in between three U.S. defenders unmarked.

With the 2-0 loss after falling to England day earlier, the U.S. women have suffered back-to-back defeats while conceding multiple goals for the first time since 2001.

JUMP TO: Player ratings | Best/worst performers | Highlights and notable moments | Post-match quotes | Key stats | Upcoming fixtures

Rapid reaction

1. USWNT panic comes early this cycle

U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski said that he wanted to schedule these England and Spain matches for the October window to work through some of the team’s issues well ahead of the 2023 World Cup. Two losses five days apart exposed plenty of them.

They mark the first back-to-back losses for the U.S. women since the 2017 SheBelieves Cup, when they fell 1-0 to England in New Jersey three days before an embarrassing 3-0 loss to France in Washington, D.C., that officially ended Jill Ellis’ 3-5-2 experiment.

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This time around, it was a loss to Spain that followed one to England (both away from home), and the combination of poor performances with the context of Spain fielding a second-choice team, makes this a low point — at minimum since last year’s Olympics, and perhaps in Andonovski’s tenure.

It is, however, a familiar feeling, if U.S. fans are looking for a point of optimism. In 2015, the U.S. got worked over in a 2-0 loss to France in Lorient to open the calendar year. That friendly answered personnel questions and is an overlooked element of the team’s 2015 World Cup triumph. Four years later, it was the same story: a 3-1 loss in Le Havre to open the year, and eventually the U.S. won the World Cup — including a quarterfinal victory over France in Paris.

If the same pattern is to hold this cycle, much needs to change. There are both individual personnel issues to address and larger questions with the system.

Granted, the U.S. was missing several starters in both games and had to reach deep into the bench in positions like full-back. And undoubtedly, the weight of the Sally Yates report and the ongoing fallout within the NWSL weighs heavily on players.

All that context is necessary. Still, the U.S. looked poor against Spain, and that needs immediate correction against Germany at home twice in November.

2. The USWNT midfield gets overrun, again

England completely controlled the midfield in Friday’s 2-1 victory over the USWNT, pinging the ball around the Americans and playing out of the U.S.’ high press with great composure.

On Tuesday, Spain weathered the early high press and played out of it in their signature style — even without most of their start players — and soon found the game and clogged up the midfield, forcing errant passes from Lindsey Horan and largely isolating Rose Lavelle.

The biggest question about this U.S. system as a whole is in midfield. It is not a new question — the midfield just got put under its most strenuous two tests to date, and it got severely outplayed in both.

Horan struggled against Spain from a deeper position and Lavelle tried to carry much of the attacking load, eventually moving up to the wing position when Ashley Sanchez entered the match in the 64th minute. Andi Sullivan still shoulders the burden of filling a defensive midfield role that was so singularly filled by Julie Ertz in the previous cycle. Ertz cannot be replaced (a conversation had ad nauseam at this point), certainly not by one person.

Is it time to change systems? Could Sullivan and Sam Coffey — or any other potential option — combine to provide more cover in a double pivot? Even if so, how does Lavelle — or Catarina Macario, when healthy and if in that role — get more support in the buildout if more resources need to be allocated to defensive midfield roles?

An X-factor here is Sam Mewis, who has not played all year due to a knee injury that started out as being described by U.S. Soccer and the Kansas City Current as minor, but eventually shelved her for all of 2022. Mewis is another box-to-box midfield option who can aid multiple U.S. deficiencies right now. She emerged as a top player in the world from 2020-21.

None of these questions are easy, and a switch away from the 4-3-3 has long seemed like an unthinkable solution. This 4-3-3 became the defining modern system of the U.S. in reaction to that 2017 SheBelieves Cup disaster, when France tore apart the three-back and it was clear to all that something drastic needed to change. Back-to-back losses, even with the concession that major pieces were missing, make this a very similar moment.

3. A big result for young Spain side, with caveats

Spain leaves this international break with a 1-1 draw against Sweden and a 2-0 win over world No. 1 United States. The victory over the U.S. might actually give Spain an outside chance of climbing into the top six of the FIFA rankings to be released on Thursday, which would make them one of the seeded teams for this month’s World Cup draw.

All that happened this week with 15 of the federation’s top players, who were not called up for these games after calling for drastic changes within the federation, citing health concerns. The implication were clear: head coach Jorge Vilda fostered this negative environment.

Spain’s federation immediately backed Vilda and publicly scrutinized the players, saying they could face serious suspensions. Instead, Vilda pulled players up from Spain’s successful youth program, one that currently holds the U-17 and U-20 World Cup titles. What this result means for those players, in their individual journeys cannot be understated.

It also must be said that the problems in Spain are serious, and the dichotomy of them in the wake of the Yates report in the U.S. is disturbing. Vilda doubled down and dug in to defend himself last week, saying “I demand the utmost respect” from players and refusing to discuss those who were not in camp.

Neither Vilda nor the Spanish federation are hiding from clear retaliation against some of the best players in the world. What’s worse, they might not even recognize it as such.

So, Spain’s young players should celebrate this result for themselves. Spain, as a federation, and Vilda, as the coach, requires much more scrutiny.

Player ratings

USWNT: Casey Murphy, 6. Hailie Mace, 6. Alana Cook, 5. Becky Sauerbrunn, 6. Carson Pickett, 6. Andi Sullivan, 5. Lindsey Horan, 5. Rose Lavelle, 5. Sophia Smith, 6. Trinity Rodman, 5. Megan Rapinoe, 5. Sam Coffey, 6. Ashley Hatch, 5. Sofia Huerta, 5. Ashley Sanchez, 5. Crystal Dunn, 5. Alyssa Thompson, 6.

Spain: Misa Rodriguez, 5. Ivana Andres, 6. Rocio Galvez, 7. Laia Codina, 7. Olga Carmona, 8. Oihane Hernandez, 7. Maitane Lopez, 6. Maite Oroz, 6. Claudia Zornoza, 6. Esther Gonzalez, 7. Alba Redondo, 6. Ane Azkona, N/A. Marta Cardona, 6. Athenea del Castillo, 6. Alyssa Thompson, 6.

Best and worst performers

BEST: Olga Carmona, Spain

The left wing-back shut down Trinity Rodman and then Sophia Smith, was great 1-v-1 both in wide and central areas, and sparked Spain’s attack from deep areas.

WORST: Lindsey Horan, USWNT

Twice gave the ball away in dangerous positions in the U.S.’ defensive third and struggled to find the game alongside the rest of the U.S. midfield.

Highlights and notable moments

For U.S. fans, these may be considered lowlights, but Spain was the more dangerous side as the hosts found the back of the net twice.

First Laia Codina scored on a set piece in the 39th minute:

After the break, the USWNT continued to look flat and the visitors’ hopes of a comeback were dashed in the 72nd minute.

Esther Gonzรกlez’s one-touch strike was a beauty, and made it clear this match was over.

After the match: What the players and managers said

USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski: “We knew these were going to be two tough opponents, we knew these were going to be two tough games. That’s why we came here, to learn more about us this long before the World Cup and hopefully get prepared better for the World Cup.”

Andonovski: “As a coach, I will take full responsibility over it before anyone else. We’re goimg to go back and look at what are the details, what are the moments that they were better than us, and why.”

Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information)

Up next

USWNT: For players whose NWSL clubs have qualified for playoffs, they will shift their focus to club soccer in the aftermath of the Sally Yates investigation into abuse within the league. For international duty, the USWNT next faces Germany on Nov. 10 in Florida.

Spain: The Spanish side has no upcoming international fixtures as the program still deals with player discontent and protests against the Spanish federation.

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