The goal celebrations were muted for the U.S. women’s national team on Sunday, and so was the final score line, a 3–0 win. The team knew by halftime that Chile would have to hang 10 on it in the last 45 minutes to make goal differential a factor in Group F, a reversal that would have been the single-greatest in sports history. The USWNT earned the right to cruise through the second half after two Carli Lloyd goals and an unstoppable Julie Ertz header in the first, and when it did turn up the intensity, Chilean goalkeeper Christiane Endler was there to remind the players that they were better off not trying.
The U.S. has now had 180 minutes of tooling around the World Cup parking lot against Thailand and Chile. Thursday against Sweden it finally has to pull this thing out into traffic and make sure it still remembers what to do when someone’s coming the other way.
The biggest outstanding question: How will the U.S. defense do when it’s actually asked to play defense? On the rare occasions in both games when its opponents possessed the ball in the offensive half, the U.S. midfield has pressed and swarmed the player on the ball, even in areas close to its own goal where you might expect the players to settle into a more structured defensive block. It worked against these two underpowered offenses; Thailand and Chile combined for three total shots in two games. But that might not be the way to go against Sweden or the better teams waiting in the knockout stages, who have players with the talent to break those presses and find the wide-open spaces waiting in front of the U.S. back line.
Chile actually got the ball into the back of the net once on Sunday, after U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher came out for a set piece hit over the high American line and played the expected touch, rather than the ball. She whiffed, and the free kick rolled into the net but was called back. The high line did its job to catch Carla Guerrero offside, but its fail safe—Naeher’s ability to come out and claim balls in behind—wobbled in a way you can bet future U.S. opponents will try to take advantage of.
The U.S. defense spent most of the game orchestrating its attack, a move necessitated by Jill Ellis’ deep rotation. Ellis left out three of the team’s best playmakers—Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath, and Rose Lavelle—leaving only Christen Press to pull the strings against Chile. Press, like Rapinoe and Heath, seems to play exclusively as a wide forward for this team, and that meant that a less creative U.S. midfield sometimes struggled to get the ball in dangerous positions for its forwards against a Chilean midfield that offered a little bit more resistance than Thailand’s.
Instead, U.S. defenders Tierna Davidson, Ali Krieger, and Abby Dahlkemper spent much of the game pinging long passes wide for Press and Mallory Pugh, or into tight spaces for Lloyd, Jessica McDonald, and Lindsey Horan in the center. It was a good idea for this game. Chile struggled to deal with these balls, often knocking them out of play. (Chile conceded 15 corners, one of which led to Ertz’s goal.) But better defenders who are less intimidated by the Americans’ ability in the air could deal with these more comfortably, neutralizing the team’s long-held penchant for settling for crosses. Lavelle seems to be the primary antidote to that, someone who can find an Alex Morgan run or an in-cutting winger on the ground.
The U.S. has been preparing for this moment for a lot longer than its first two World Cup games, and has already played many of this competition’s best teams this year. It will be favored to pass its test against Sweden. From here on out, there will be no more debates over sportsmanship should the U.S. run up the score. The teams will be more evenly matched; the U.S. will have to earn all of its goals. Best of luck to the teams trying to keep them out.