Draw against Germany provides mixed signals from USWNT

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It’s hard to know what to think after yesterday’s U.S. Women’s National Team performance in Chicago. Or if we should think anything. Without a coach and three years away from their next major tournament, the U.S. women are in this strange, competitive netherworld where nothing really matters. They drew 1-1 with the world’s No. 2 team (Germany) at Toyota Park, but they could just as well have lost 4-0. The effect would have been the same. They could have won 4-0, and whomever is hired by U.S. Soccer to replace Pia Sundhage could come in, plop a new plan on the table, and render anything accomplished on Saturday meaningless. This was game part of a celebration tour. No more. No less.

But if we were to indulge our reflexes and parse Saturday’s match for signs, there would be a few things to consider:

Top gear remains unmatched …

Bookending the match were two periods were the U.S. looked like the best team in the world. The first stretch produced a well-worked opener, Abby Wambach’s 147th goal putting the U.S. up 1-0 in the second minute. The last stretch nearly stole the match, rendering Germany’s control of the intervening time meaningless.

… but the other gears can still be worrisome.

And that’s the problem with the U.S., though this is hardly new. They’re unstoppable in spurts but otherwise too easily tamed.

In the period before the World Cup, their inability to control play looked like a major problem, particularly with performances against Mexico (a loss in World Cup qualifying) and Italy (the CONCACAF-UEFA playoff) hinting they were vulnerable to anyone and everyone.

That’s changes. The last year has assuaged fans’ worst fears, but the problem still surfaces against elite competition. Germany brought it out last night, but we’ve also seen it against France, Japan, Sweden and Canada.

Silver lining: The U.S. has won most of their games against those foes, though if the States continue to play 30, 40, 50-minute stretches on the back foot, they’ll continue to leave themselves open to …

  • losing a group-deciding game in a major tournament (Sweden, July 6, 2011);
  • needed a last gasp goal after giving up a lead in a quarterfinal (Brazil, July 10, 2011);
  • an upset in a major tournament final (Japan, July 17, 2011);
  • needing extra time and some questionable refereeing to avoid a historic upset (Canada, August 2, 2012).

Defense is priority number one post-Pia

The U.S. only allowed one goal, but the back line’s performance didn’t inspire confidence. Germany had too many chances to win. It’s hard to imagine what this unit would do if they lost Christie Rampone, though the captain’s postponed retirement doesn’t lessen the need to come up with a new idea. The back four is screaming to be revamped.

The midfield also needs answers

Lauren Cheney’s turned into a great utility knife – somebody who can play any of the six non-defense positions – but it’s unclear she is a good choice for a two-women midfield against the likes of Germany (particularly with Shannon Boxx having a sub-par evening). When Pia Sundhage briefly flirted with a three-women midfield post-World Cup, Cheney fit, but if the U.S. is going to remain a 4-4-2 team, the new coach will have to uncover some more midfield options. On Saturday, Cheney wasn’t a problem, but she also wasn’t a solution.

Wherefore Heather O’Reilly

Megan Rapinoe’s emergence has sent Heather O’Reilly to the bench, but the “HAO” remains one of the best wide players in the world. It’s appealing to use her as a late-match, change of pace option, but her ability to get down the right and provide service for Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach could be better-leveraged as the Abby-Alex partnership matures.

Not a bad place to be

For all my nit-picking, the U.S. still got a decent result. While they were at home and well-rested (Germany’s players are in the middle of their season), playing Germany to a draw is nothing to worry about, particularly three years out from the World Cup. High expectations (perhaps unreasonably high ones) leave mixed feelings after any home draw, but those are the incredible heights the U.S. women are navigating. There’s no need for excuses, but perspective is important.

Second game should be better

Against Australia (Sept. 16, 19), the U.S. opened with a 2-1, closed with a 6-2. Against Canada (Sept. 17, 22, 2011), a 1-1 draw was followed by a 3-0 win. In early 2011, Japan played the U.S. to a 2-1 last March at the Algarve Cup before dropping two 2-0s in the States in May.

The U.S. plays Germany again on Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network). If the recent pattern holds, they should be much better.