10 things we learned from the USWNT at the 2018 Tournament of Nations

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The U.S. women’s national team poses with the 2018 Tournament of Nations trophy. (Getty)
The U.S. women’s national team poses with the 2018 Tournament of Nations trophy. (Getty)

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — The U.S. women’s national team didn’t just win the 2018 Tournament of Nations on Thursday night at Toyota Park. It won it in style, with four unanswered goals and a 4-1 victory over Brazil. It lifted the trophy with spotlights dancing and fireworks popping, then strapped it in for a safe ride home.

Head coach Jill Ellis and her players had approached the three-game competition like a group stage. But they came away from it with much more than a faux knockout-round berth. The two wins and one draw, taken together, were immensely promising.

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“It’s probably the most complete tournament we’ve had,” Ellis said after the finale. “We feel like we’ve taken really big steps.”

Here’s a look at some of those steps, and at takeaways – some of them in the words of Ellis and players – from a busy eight days in USWNT-land.

1. The U.S. is the 2019 World Cup favorite

A prohibitive favorite? No, of course not. It will be challenged, as it was by Australia on Sunday. But a clear favorite next summer in France? Yep. Absolutely.

That’s not a hot take. But it’s not a statement of the obvious either. All types of concerns have swirled around this team over the past 12 months. Questions lingered heading into the Tournament of Nations. Two hundred and seventy minutes of soccer later, so many of them have acceptable answers.

That’s not to say there aren’t still unknowns. And it’s not to say the U.S. is flawless. After all, it conceded four goals over the three games. But it grew into the tournament, and played better soccer Thursday night than it has in a long time.

2. The USWNT’s depth is insane

The roster’s wealth of options is ludicrous. The silver lining of an injury-riddled calendar year is that opportunities arise for fringe players. And so many have proven themselves capable.

No Kelley O’Hara? No problem, Emily Sonnett can step in. No Becky Sauerbrunn? Abby Dahlkemper and Tierna Davidson have the back line anchored. No Sam Mewis? McCall Zerboni was impressive. No Mallory Pugh? Tobin Heath is awesome. No Heath? Christen Press will start and get the U.S. off and running, like she did against Japan.

That one of Heath and Pugh will likely have to settle for a spot on the bench highlights what Ellis called “exceptional challenges.” There are at least 16 outfield players capable of starting every game of a World Cup final run. Ellis can only choose 10 per match.

On the flipside, she almost can’t go wrong. Or, in her words: “These are all good problems to have.”

3. Depth means flexibility

The other aspect of the U.S.’s depth is the tactical versatility it engenders. It provides cover and allows for rotation, but when players have distinct skill sets – Heath and Pugh on the right wing, for example – it also allows a coach to tweak and tailor a lineup and gameplan to either combat a given opponent’s strengths or expose weakness.

Here’s one example from Ellis: “Most teams are very symmetrical in how they play. We play slightly differently up the left side than we do up the right side,” she said, referencing how Crystal Dunn gets forward from left back while Sonnett tends to tuck in from the right. “Sonnett’s profile allows us to rotate to the left.”

But, she said: “If we play a different team, we might want to rotate to the right, or we might want to have two outside backs that are getting high and wide. Again, these are all wonderful tools to have. My challenging task is to see what tools we need at what moments.”

4. Who’s the third midfielder?

The best example of that tactical flexibility is in midfield, where Ellis has at least six legitimate starting candidates. Oh, and she has two sure-fire starters in Julie Ertz and Lindsey Horan. So there are four (or more) players for one spot.

Those players are Mewis, Zerboni, Morgan Brian and Rose Lavelle. Mewis, 25, started every single national team game in 2017, but has been limited to one start and two substitute appearances in 2018. That’s opened the door for Zerboni, who influenced all three Tournament of Nations games off the bench.

Brian started the first two, but underwhelmed. With her alongside Ertz and Horan, the midfield lacked dynamism. Heading into the fall, she appears to be on the outside looking in. And then there’s Lavelle, who was awesome Thursday. (More on her in a sec.)

So what will Ellis do? Likely what she hinted at above. She’ll be able to mix and match, choosing different players for different roles and different situations. Perhaps a World Cup semifinal against France or Australia calls for Mewis or Zerboni. But a group stage game against an overmatched foe might call for Lavelle.

In other words, it’s complicated. In Ellis’ words, accompanied by a smile: “Damn, dude, I got some thinking to do.”

5. Rose Lavelle is ‘different’

Lavelle’s first national team start in 10-and-a-half months was Thursday’s biggest development. Because, as both Ellis and Heath said afterward, Lavelle is “different.”

“She brings a lot of qualities that we don’t necessarily have in the rest of our midfield,” Heath said. “Sometimes the three players are a little bit similar. … She’s very unpredictable. It’s fun.”

Lavelle and Horan played almost as No. 8/No. 10 hybrids, but it was Lavelle in particular who supported Alex Morgan and gave the midfield verticality. It was exactly what the U.S. had lacked against Japan and Australia. She made overlapping runs around wingers. She received the ball in between the lines and fed attackers. Oh, and she did this:

Ellis raved about her postgame: “She sees and reads the game very well, and she solves pressure exceptionally well. In a game like tonight, when it gets stretched, she’s gonna be effective, but I also think she’s gonna be effective in a game where teams sit very low and she has to find space in between tight lines. Because her timing and her cleanness on the ball is really special.”

After a full year of awful injury luck, Lavelle is back. And at the very least, she looks like a wonderful first option off the bench.

6. Starting USWNT left back Crystal Dunn

Dunn, a more natural attacker, started all three games at left back, and did nothing to suggest she’ll relinquish the role. “I’ve seen massive steps, massive progression,” Ellis said of Dunn’s development at the position. “I thought she was very consistent in her performance, both sides of the ball. Her defending, her work rate, her tenacity.”

7. The one worry: defensive transitions

The lone legitimate concern is the two seconds after the U.S. loses the ball in the attacking third. Those two seconds burned them for an Australian and a Brazilian goal, and very nearly a second Brazilian one.

On several occasions, U.S. players seemed caught in two minds: Jump to the ball? Or retreat? It’s unclear what exactly Ellis’ counterpressing instructions are. But hesitating isn’t an option. And that’s what Lavelle and Ertz did on the Brazilian goal:

The Yanks will boss the vast majority of games they play. They must shore up their defensive transitions.

8. There’s a center back competition

Tierna Davidson has a real chance to start at the World Cup as a 20-year-old. Sure, she scored the own goal Thursday. But as Ellis said postgame, “Shit happens.” Other than that, “she was phenomenal.”

Ellis specifically lauded Davidson’s passing. As the only lefty of the three center backs in the mix, the teenager gives the U.S. more balance and line-breaking ability in possession. Morgan mentioned Davidson’s distribution as well, noting her ability to bypass midfield and play directly into Morgan’s feet.

Ellis piloted all three potential pairings during the competition, and all had their ups and downs. Davidson has tremendous potential. Recent mistakes will probably lead Ellis to stick with Dahlkemper and Sauerbrunn. But the only college player on the roster is going to get an extended look.

9. The seven ever-presents

Seven players started all three Tournament of Nations games: Alyssa Naeher, Sonnett, Dunn, Ertz, Horan, Morgan and Megan Rapinoe. All but Sonnett seem like locks to start at the World Cup – or, more urgently, during qualifying in October – if healthy.

10. Projected 2019 World Cup starting 11

Yes, we know, they haven’t qualified yet. But they surely will. So, if we had to guess what Ellis’ most common starting lineup at next summer’s World Cup will be …

Naeher; O’Hara, Dahlkemper, Sauerbrunn, Dunn; Ertz, Mewis, Horan; Pugh, Morgan, Rapinoe.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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