The United States women's national team is the reigning World Cup champion, but they've undergone some forced adjustments over the last year. Longtime starters Lauren Holiday and Abby Wambach have retired, Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez are taking the year off to have children and Carli Lloyd -- scorer of a hat trick in the final and winner of the FIFA Ballon d'Or -- is currently injured. She'll return for the Olympics, but Megan Rapinoe, who is recovering from a torn ACL, may not.
Meanwhile, Lindsey Horan has come home from Paris Saint-Germain and established herself as one of the Portland Thorns' best players. Crystal Dunn -- probably the 24th woman last year, just barely missing out on the World Cup squad -- was the NWSL MVP. Both are stone cold locks to go to Brazil for the Olympics. 18-year-old Mallory Pugh has burst onto the scene, looking excellent in her USWNT caps this year, and has a good chance to make the final Olympic squad as well.
All of these players featured prominently in an entertaining 3-3 draw against Japan on Thursday, then an extremely impressive and complete 2-0 victory (though the game was called a bit early for lightning) over the same team on Sunday. These performances were about more than the results -- they showed off how the USWNT is evolving.
In the case of Sunday's game, Jill Ellis opted to play Dunn and Tobin Heath on either side of Alex Morgan. Christen Press (and later Horan) played in an unusual role for her, behind Morgan and in front of two midfielders; she usually plays as a striker for her club and on the wing most often for the national team. Allie Long played as a destroyer trying to win the ball high up the pitch. Morgan Brian -- who has usually been part of a double-pivot midfield for the USWNT or one of the more advanced midfielders in front of a holder for the Houston Dash -- played as a true "No. 6," picking up the ball and distributing from deep, rarely venturing forward.
This lineup produced some of the most gorgeous, free-flowing, technical soccer that the USWNT has ever played. The goals were nice, but the best example of the great soccer that this team executed is from this second-half move that didn't quite result in the ball finding the back of the net.
Buildup. Heath. Enjoy. pic.twitter.com/DKnWCG1sLj— Our Game Magazine (@OurGameMagazine) June 5, 2016
It's impressive enough for any team to do things like this against any high-level professional opponent, but there's something particularly jarring about the USWNT doing it to Japan. The Japanese are women's international soccer's masters of moves like this. The Americans beat them at their own game.
And to some degree, Lloyd sitting out helps them to do this. While Lloyd is undoubtedly one of the world's best players, her value is more in direct play and scoring goals than technical possession play. Her turnovers are ultimately worth putting up with -- her goal-scoring rate in all games is great, and it's the greatest of all time in finals -- but there's no denying that she turns the ball over more often than the likes of Press, Pugh and Horan.
This kind of play is also made possible by both Heath and Dunn improving, though in different ways. In Heath's case, she's always been the most technically adept and creative player in the USWNT squad, but she's been in average form over the last couple of years. She started looking more confident during the victory tour friendlies, though, and she's the early leader in NWSL MVP consideration. In Dunn's case, she appears to have added something different to her game. She hasn't scored in NWSL this season, but she's still been the best player for a good Washington Spirit team, turning into more of a playmaker. Almost all of the Spirit's dangerous attacking moves start with Dunn unlocking the defense, and she's carried that play over to the national team.
But despite all of this, there was a bit of a problem in front of the defense against Japan on Thursday. Hope Solo looked slow on two of the goals, but goals are the product of quality shots, which are the result of some defending error at some point down the line. With Long holding and Brian linking in a 4-3-3, the USWNT midfield didn't look great, and Japan found spaces to create good shooting opportunities.
So on Sunday, Ellis did something simple -- she just switched them. Brian sat and Long pressed, trying to win the ball. The result was a team better at both winning back possession and passing out of the back. Not only did they create in the final third just as well as they did in the first Japan game, but they kept Japan from getting the ball into dangerous areas -- or much at all, really.
Both of them bring something to the game that Holiday never could. That's not a knock on Holiday -- she was a world-class attacking midfielder, miscast as a holding player in order to fit as many star players into the starting lineup as possible -- but it's an uncomfortable, unavoidable truth just like the one about Lloyd. Holiday wasn't a ball-winner, and she didn't have good positional sense when she was moved to a new position. She wasn't a real central midfielder. Long and Brian are. So is another potential starter in that spot, Sam Mewis. Horan -- who is better in a more forward position -- might play there too, but she looks much more comfortable in that position than Holiday (or Lloyd) ever did.
This is a better team than the one that won the World Cup. They're more balanced, they play better soccer and they create more quality chances. Whether they win the gold medal or not, they're more entertaining to watch than ever before. They're evolving. And people who were concerned about the likes of Germany and France not just catching up to the USWNT, but passing them by comfortably, appear to have much less to be worried about than they did a year ago.