2015 Women’s World Cup, after day 7: It’s time to reassess this fearsome U.S. strike force

We may have reached the final canard – the last fable to be disillusioned; the last lark to be challenged. For all the mystique that’s been stripped away from the U.S. women’s national team over the last three years, there’s one tale that’s survived the struggle. Perhaps it’s the nature of fame, or maybe it’s the cyclical nature of attention on women’s soccer, but there’s one claim about the United States that’s yet to come under the microscope. After yesterday’s 0-0 draw with Sweden, however, it might be worth asking how good famous faces like Abby Wambach’s, Sydney Leroux’s and Alex Morgan’s actually are. Does the United States’ strike force really deserve its renown?

It’s a question that’s been asked of the rest of the team since London 2012. People who follow the United States women’s national team have been deconstructing assumptions about the team’s greatness. Among the diehard fans, that debate produced a tacit but collective agreement: The U.S. is no longer the clear best team in the world, nor is necessarily the most talented, deepest or even most resilient. Those titles are in play. The U.S. may still be the world’s most famous team, but after a reckoning that’s aligned perceptions with the reality (that of 16 years without a world title), the world’s No. 2-ranked team is seen as one of a select few that can win the 2015 Women’s World Cup.

For the most devoted slice of the “WoSo”-following pie, though, there’s been that truism they to run back to: the forwards. On paper, who wouldn’t be excited about a depth chart of Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach, Sydney Leroux, Christen Press and Amy Rodriguez? That’s 317 combined international goals! That’s experience, youth; size, and speed; strength, savvy, and most important, depth. Who wouldn’t want that fantastic five?

Unfortunately, and particularly after yesterday’s 0-0 draw with Sweden, it may be time to reevaluate. And this isn’t just about one result. Over two games at the World Cup, that group of forwards has only one goal and two shots on target, numbers that shrink to zero and zero if you consider Press a right midfielder (only a half-truth). Wambach, Morgan and Leroux – the players dominating those magazine covers? No goals. No shots on target.

There’s also the bigger picture of club-level production. If you consider the last year-plus’ worth of performance over play beyond the national team (and it seems only fair to consider more than 180 minutes worth of play), it’s not surprising that a.) Press would be the most productive player, b.) the group’s production would be compromised by Rodriguez not getting minutes (32 thus far), and c.) the rest of the quintet’s reputations may exceed their on-field value:

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I’m not saying Rodriguez has to play more (though I would give her more time). I’m not even necessarily saying Christen Press is the U.S. best forward (I’d be happy to say that elsewhere, though). I just want to hint at an idea: These famous names the U.S. has in its striker pool? Maybe they’re not as fearsome on the field as their hype might imply. Maybe the stature of Leroux, Morgan and Wambach has become more about Q score than impact on the field.

On the surface, that makes total sense. Women’s club soccer isn’t a sport that’s on your television every weekend. It’s on YouTube, with bad streams, played in front of crowds that rarely crack five-digits. Nobody beyond the hardcore fan base watches the National Women’s Soccer League, and that’s same fan base that already accepted the national team’s limitations. For other people, it’s natural to see Leroux, Morgan and Wambach pop up on their television screens an assume they’re still as good as they were the last time they were playing on TV, back in 2012.

And they are good, relatively. The position remains one of legitimate strength for the U.S., but when you go down the list, you see a sea of caveats that aren’t necessarily there with other world-class strikers. For all Morgan’s fame, it’s been two injury-filled years since she produced at the levels that vaulted her into the spotlight. It’s become fair to ask how much a then productive Wambach helped her numbers. Wambach, of course, is 35, and doesn’t even play club soccer anymore. Leroux’s production in the NWSL has led her to be traded each of the last two offseasons, while Rodriguez’s highly productive comeback season came in front of that league’s best creator, Lauren Holiday (who, for FC Kansas City, seems a totally different player than the U.S. national team version). The one player whose record seems unimpeachable, Chicago Red Stars’ star Christen Press, is the one player who head coach Jill Ellis seems willing to move away from forward. Be less versatile, Christen.

“I catch myself sometimes, for sure,” Ellis told ESPN when discussing her forward pool. She remains a believer, but you can only wonder what she thinks about some of the world’s other stars.

Take Lotta Schelin, who the U.S. faced on Friday. Defenders Julie Johnston and Becky Sauerbrunn kept her in check, but that’s an accomplishment you can only appreciate when you see how dominant Schelin can be. For Lyon in France, the Swedish international has 89 goals in the last four seasons (75 games). That league has its weak points, but when you look at the numbers other players are putting up, it’s a ridiculous total.

And it’s not like Schelin is the one shining example of a talented player killing it for both club and country. Germany’s Célia Šašić led the Frauen Bundesliga in goals this season and has a claim to being the world’s best forward. Marta, of course, is a five-time world player of the year who has led her club teams to two straight UEFA Champions League final fours. Lyon’s Eugénie Le Sommer just won her country’s player of the year honor, while Anja Mittag persists as one of the game’s most dangerous players, despite the shadows of Marta (club) and Šašić (country). Add in Canada’s Christine Sinclair, owner of 154 career international goals, and you have a number of players who’d have strong claims to being the U.S.’s best if they were dropped in Ellis’s player pool.

We’ll get back to the U.S.’s depth argument in a minute, but this point really does need to be hammered home: There are a number of strikers in the world who, if you were about to draft your fantasy keeper league, might go before any non-Press U.S. forward.

Consider this collection of young, emerging goal scorers, and then remember the youngest of Ellis’s star-studded quintet is 25 years old:

  • The Netherlands’ Vivianne Miedema, 18, already has a 41-goal season to her credit in her home country, has won time with Bayern Munich, and has already collected 19 international goals;
  • Alexandra Popp, a well-established star for Germany, is not exactly young (24), but she would be the youngest forward on the U.S. team;
  • Norway’s Ada Hegerberg is already making an impact for Lyon at 19 years old.

These aren’t just players succeeding in bubbles. These are players who’d get playing time for the United States, and the list of others who’d challenge the U.S.’s stars is longer than most assume:

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I restricted that list to players who’ve a.) been productive, b.) for club and a World Cup-qualified country, while c.) playing at a top-quality league. Not all would unseat one of the U.S.’s big five, and as Christen Press has found out, scoring in the NWSL is harder than scoring in Europe. But these players aren’t just scoring in Europe. They’re crushing their leagues the same way Press crushed Sweden’s. Are these players more likely to come over and perform like Press — regressing slightly, but still proving to be one of the league’s best scorers — or would they encounter Morgan- and Leroux-esque troubles?

Even if we knew that answer, club performance has never been a perfect indicator for national team success. But it has become a larger sample of games than we get in the international world. And increasingly, as more clubs make a commitment to the women’s game, we’re seeing elite players run up against club squads strong enough to rival the best in the international game. Club performance isn’t the be-all end-all, but it’s telling, both in its positives and its negatives.

All of which brings us back to the U.S.’s forward canard. The team has enviable depth, but often we talk about that depth as if it can overcome all faults – as if it’s the factor that will make up for a poorly constructed midfield, a style that doesn’t promote creativity, and tactics which seem to rely on an outdated assumption. The U.S.’s firepower is formidable, but in a world where teams usually play one, maybe two pure strikers, it’s not an overwhelming advantage. And in that same world, one where the team’s most famous names haven’t produced commensurate with their renown, it may be time to concede the point.

Jill Ellis’s forward depth is a strength, but it’s not an inherently overwhelming force. With Wambach’s aerial prowess, Leroux’s sometimes ferocious work rate, Rodriguez’s intelligence running between defenders and a healthy Morgan’s ability to beat teams over-the-top, it’s better to look at the U.S. forwards as defined by specialized talents. Because when Press is held in check and players like Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd can’t chip in from midfield, it’s not hard to see a good defense holding this fearsome fivesome scoreless.

Elsewhere

  • Pity Ecuador. Not because it’s a minnow. Not because it’s been beat badly, outscored 16-1 over its first two games after last night’s 10-1 loss to Switzerland. Pity Ecuador because of the way it’s losing. In its first game, Ecuador conceded three penalty kicks during a 6-0 blowout at the boots of Cameroon. Last night in Vancouver, it was a hat trick of own goals that undid the tournament’s last qualifier. Yet to face group favorite Japan, Ecuador’s tournament is effectively over.

  • Later in Vancouver, Japan continued to show a type of goal-shy control that leaves you thinking it could both match up with anybody and keep any team in a game. It’s 2-1 win over Cameroon put it into the second round, leaving the defending champions at top of Group C.

  • And in the day’s opening game, Australia issued scared U.S. fans a reminder about Nigeria. Though the Super Falcons tore apart Sweden’s defense on Monday, its defense was still a weakness. Against a quick Australian back line that kept Asisat Oshoala and Desire Oparanozie in check, Kyah Simon’s second career World Cup brace gave the Matildas a 2-0 win. The U.S. may not match up quite as well, but it should still be considered a big favorite going onto Tuesday’s group finale.

Today

The two teams vying for first in Group E face off in Montreal, where a debuting Spain side led my attacking maestro Verónica Boquete will try to derail group favorite Brazil. Meanwhile, in Moncton, a Mexico team that had a potentially game-winning goal against Colombia incorrectly ruled out now needs a win in its final two games. Today’s meeting with England is its best shot.

  • France vs. Colombia, 1:00 p.m. Eastern, FOX, Group F, Moncton
  • England vs. Mexico, 4:00 p.m. Eastern, FOX, Group F, Moncton
  • Brazil vs. Spain, 4:00 p.m. Eastern, FOX Sports 1, Group E, Montreal
  • South Korea vs. Costa Rica, 7:00 p.m. Eastern, FOX Sports 2, Group E, Montreal

Where we stand

Japan has clinched first in Group C, where Cameroon and Switzerland will decide second place on Tuesday. Group D remains wide open, with the U.S.’s draw costing it a chance to lockdown the first.

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