The U.S. had won it. In typical 2016 fashion, the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) had scored a last-minute goal to give them the lead over a top-ranking opponent just before the final whistle blew.
The only problems were the whistle had not blown, and four minutes of stoppage time had been added to the clock. Plenty of time for Japan to score, and score they did.
In the 89th minute of Thursday night’s match between the USWNT and seventh-ranked Japan, with the score tied 2-2, the U.S. saw one of their best possessions of the night as they seemed to easily move the ball past defenders. Samantha Mewis sent a ball to Kelley O’Hara on the left flank, and O’Hara sent a perfect cross right in front of goal. As Japan’s goalkeeper Ayaka Yamashita came out to try to punch the ball away, she found herself in a cluster of three other players including Lindsey Horan, whose height made the difference as she flicked the ball over the three Japanese players and into the back of the net.
Japan, however, was not so quick to be defeated despite playing with only ten players after Yuki Ogimi was ejected for drawing her second yellow card of the night in the 57th minute.
With approximately a minute of stoppage time remaining in the game, Japan did what they had done so well all night, moving the ball past the U.S.’s defensive attempts. Mizuho Sakaguchi easily threaded the ball through several U.S. players to Kumi Yokoyama, who then breezed past defender Julie Johnston for a 1 v 1 with USWNT goalkeeper Hope Solo. Yokoyama had time to get off a good shot, and she placed it past a diving Solo and into the back corner of the net to tie the game.
When the final whistle blew, the game ended in a 3-3 draw.
Yokoyama’s stoppage-time goal highlights the problems the USWNT were having all night. The most noticeable problem for the U.S. was its defense, or the utter lack thereof, for a large portion of the game.
In the 14th minute, Mana Iwabuchi turned and fired from just outside the box, splitting Allie Long and Becky Sauerbrunn with the shot, and sent it into the upper 90 for Japan’s first goal of the night. In the 22nd minute, Emi Nakajima crossed the ball to Yuki Ogimi, who one-touched the ball into the back of the net as Kelley O’Hara attempted to get her foot on the ball, arriving just a split-second too late to prevent the goal. With their third goal of the night, Japan threaded the ball through and beat several black jerseys to set up a great look on goal by Yokoyama.
While much of the blame for Japan’s three goals was directed at Hope Solo, all three could have been prevented if the U.S.’s marking was better. However, the USWNT seemed to be disorganized and lacking communication, and that resulted in a lack of pressure on a Japanese team that had possessed the ball well all night.
In contrast, Japan came out from the opening minute of the game and put heavy pressure on the United States. This caused the USWNT to look disjointed and sluggish, and it was clear that they were playing Japan’s game and not their own. It was not until going two goals down that the U.S. seemed to have any fire in their attack.
Not too surprisingly, that fire was sparked by Denver native Mallory Pugh, the 18-year-old phenom who was first called up to the national team in January and has seen much playing time for the team ever since. Pugh was one of the top performers for the USWNT all night, controlling the ball in the midfield where the rest of her teammates were all but invisible for long stretches of the game.
It was off Pugh’s assist that Alex Morgan scored the U.S.’s first goal of the night, putting Pugh as the team leader in assists for the year with her sixth. Pugh nearly had a second assist on the night in the 66th minute, when she turned and passed the ball behind her to Meghan Klingenberg, but Klingenberg failed to capitalize and sent an easy ball right to their keeper.
Pugh also could have had a chance on goal for herself on an Alex Morgan possession, but Morgan failed to see Pugh’s run to her left and was stripped of the ball for the turnover. That was not the only time Pugh was in position for a goal attempt, but she never got the look as the U.S. possession was directed elsewhere.
Alex Morgan came through for the USWNT on Thursday night, as she so often does, scoring the first two goals to bring the U.S. back from behind and preventing the U.S. first loss of the year.
Hopefully Jill Ellis and U.S. Soccer have learned a couple of important facts from Thursday night’s draw.
For one, hyping up a player’s accomplishments and upcoming milestones before a match, as USSF did in regards to Hope Solo’s upcoming 100th career shutout (she is currently at 98), is not always the best idea. Solo did not play her best game Thursday night, although to say that she was solely to blame for Japan’s three goals would both be untrue and a disservice to the Japanese attack. However, for USSF to seeming praise her for an accomplishment she has yet to reach seems in poor taste, especially in advance of two matches against a top-10 team.
Also, the U.S. cannot depend on Carli Lloyd for wins. The USWNT suffered its first loss on home soil in over 10 years in the final match of last year’s Victory Tour. In that match against China, the team seemed to be playing "Abby ball," more concerned with getting the ball to Abby Wambach in hopes of her scoring her 185th career goal during her farewell match.
Ever since, the team has been playing a sort of "Carli ball," and it shows whenever she is having an off game or, as was the case Thursday night, is off the field. That problem is exacerbated by last year’s retirements of Shannon Boxx and Lauren Holiday and injury of Megan Rapinoe, further weakening the midfield. While it appears that Ellis is hopefully waiting to see if Rapinoe will be back to full health in time for the Olympics, she needs to really have a more solid solution to the problems in the midfield on the off chance that she is not.
Allie Long and Morgan Brian seemed like obvious solutions to those problems, but both were practically invisible on the field to both fans and the Japanese players who easily dribbled around them Thursday night. Although Brian has been hampered by a lingering hamstring injury sustained during the team’s January camp, Long just had a poor showing against Japan. After a stellar performance against Colombia back in April, many thought Long was well on her way to earning a plane ticket to Rio, but Thursday night might have bought her a plane ticket back to Portland instead.
Finally, the back line needs some improvement as well. The combination of Meghan Klingenberg and Tobin Heath on the left side seemed to be the weakest defensively for the USWNT, and much of the Japanese attack originated on their side of the field. Shifting Kelley O’Hara to left back and starting Ali Krieger, whose chemistry with Christen Press on the right side seemed to give the US attack new life when both were subbed in in the second half, would help strengthen up the left side.
Whatever changes Jill Ellis decides to make, she has just three days to do it. The USWNT will once again take on Japan in the last of their two international friendlies on Sunday, June 5 at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. Kick off will be at 12 p.m. EST, and the game will be aired on ESPN 2.
JPN- Mana Iwabuchi (Mizuho Sakaguchi), 14’
JPN-Yuki Ogimi (Emi Nakajima), 22’
USA-Alex Morgan (Mallory Pugh), 27’
USA-Alex Morgan (Tobin Heath), 64’
USA-Lindsey Horan (Kelley O’Hara), 89’
JPN-Kumi Yokoyama (Mizuho Sakaguchi), 90+3’
USA: Hope Solo; Kelley O’Hara, Julie Johnston, Becky Sauerbrunn (C), Meghan Klingenberg (Ali Krieger, 74’); Morgan Brian (Lindsey Horan, 61’), Allie Long, Mallory Pugh; Crystal Dunn (Christen Press, 61’), Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath (Samantha Mewis, 84’)
Subs Not Used: Whitney Engen, Emily Sonnett, Alyssa Naeher
Head Coach: Jill Ellis
JPN: Ayaka Yamashita; Saori Ariyoshi, Tomoko Muramatsu, Saki Kumagai, Mayu Sasak (Yu Nakasato, 81’); Emi Nakajima, Mizuho Sakaguchi, Rumi Utsugi (Yuri Kawamura, 49’), Yuki Ogimi (C); Sonoko Chiba (Rika Masuya, 62’), Mana Iwabuchi (Kumi Yokoyama, 56’)
Subs Not Used: Erina Yamane, Yuika Sugasawa, Hikari Takagi, Ami Sugita, Sakiko Ikeda
Head Coach: Asako Takakura
JPN-Yuki Ogimi (caution), 39'
JPN-Yuki Ogimi (caution), 57'
JPN-Yuki Ogimi (ejection), 57'
JPN-Saki Kumagai (caution), 63'
Referee: Margaret Domka (USA)
Assistant Referee 1: Lixy Enriquez (MEX)
Assistant Referee 2: Stephanie-Dale Yee Sing (JAM)
4th Official: Katja Koroleva (US)