It’s almost April, which means Americans should have non-stop soccer to consume.
The U.S. men’s national team should be in the middle of trying to qualify for its first Olympics since 2008. The MLS season should be in full swing, with NWSL action soon to follow. And the U.S. women’s national team should be preparing to try to win the first gold medal right after a Women’s World Cup.
All of that is on hold due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, however, so soccer lovers have turned to re-watching and re-discussing classic matches. But there’s only so much intrigue from matches where you already know the outcome.
Instead of looking to the past, let’s step into alternate dimension: The 2015 USWNT that won the World Cup in Canada is facing off against the 2019 USWNT that won it all in France. It’s USWNT vs. USWNT and World Cup champion vs. World Cup champion – who will win?
It’s fun to think about how the networks and media would market this matchup. Does “clash of champions” undersell it? Would the angle be “2015 Carli Lloyd vs. 2019 Megan Rapinoe” for two the players who reached the height of their powers in the tournaments? Would it be offense (2019) vs. defense (2015)?
Even though both of these teams are the USWNT, they certainly look quite different, both on paper and in the way they play. Let’s see how this might go …
The tactical matchup
The two USWNTs play different formations and line up in different ways.
The 2015 USWNT started the World Cup in a 4-4-2 that was easily overrun in the midfield. The reason for this seems to stem in part from coach Jill Ellis’s insistence that the team play with “two No. 6s” in a two-woman central midfield.
In this system, the two central midfielders don’t have defined roles – they are expected to switch off between attacking and defending on the fly. When Carli Lloyd pushes up, Lauren Holiday is supposed to hang back, and vice versa. Lloyd was obviously frustrated by this in the group stage of the 2015 World Cup and suggested it was holding her back.
The 4-4-2 never clicked and by the end of the tournament, Ellis switched to a formation that looks much closer to the 4-3-3 the team later used in the 2019 World Cup. In that system, Lloyd is a pure attacking midfielder with free rein to wreak havoc – that’s what she did, becoming the Golden Boot winner of the 2015 World Cup.
The 2019 USWNT doesn’t have the same midfield problem. It’s got three players with relatively defined roles, although there’s still plenty rotation. Julie Ertz is the defensive No. 6, either Samantha Mewis or Lindsey Horan play a box-to-box No. 8 role, and Rose Lavelle is the creative No. 10.
But where the 2019 USWNT risks being overrun is on the flanks. The fullbacks, Crystal Dunn and Kelley O’Hara, are asked to bomb forward and become full participants in the attacking phases of the game. In that case, another player – often Ertz – has to try to cover open space and prevent a quick counterattack.
As games in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup showed, if Ertz or whoever was left behind got beat, the USWNT was quite vulnerable in transition. If anyone could punish the 2019 USWNT in such a scenario, it’s probably the 2015 USWNT, which played ultra-direct, unapologetically route-one soccer.
Which attack is more lethal?
Both of these teams have Alex Morgan, which is a great start. She’s a clinical finisher, has the pace and power to punish back lines, and she’s a work horse. She’s the player the USWNT attack has been built around in both teams.
But for as good as Morgan was in 2015, she became better later.
When the USWNT played a direct style in 2015 and she mostly had to chase down balls, she could do that. But she later sought to evolve her game, working on her hold-up play and challenging herself to take on defenders face-up in front of goal to become a more well-rounded threat.
Morgan’s evolution as a striker reflects the USWNT’s evolution as a whole.
Just look at the other goal-scorers on the 2015 roster. With Sydney Leroux, Abby Wambach and Amy Rodriguez as the other strikers, the USWNT was built to race in behind a back line or get on the end of a long ball.
By 2019, the USWNT attack was more dynamic. Sure, it could still play direct with Morgan up top, but it could do so much more. It set a new goals record at the 2019 World Cup to prove it.
One reason for that is the emergence of Rose Lavelle as the creative maestro the USWNT has long lacked. She can thread balls and pull defenses apart in ways no one on the 2015 team could.
Another reason is those fullbacks, Dunn and O’Hara. Both spent much of their careers as attacking players, which allowed the USWNT to basically play as if it had two extra wingers. The 2015 fullbacks, Ali Krieger and Meghan Klingenberg, certainly didn’t hang back and out of the attack, but their profiles and their assigned roles were more defensive.
Players like Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath and Christen Press round out the attacking stable for both teams. It’s debatable whether each player was better in 2015 or 2019. But on the whole, it seems these players benefited from an extra four years.
The big difference here is that the ‘19 attack is just a lot more dynamic than the ‘15 one. The newer team can attack in more ways and is less predictable. The 19ers have more clubs in their proverbial bag to use to beat teams.
Which defense is harder to beat?
If we wanted, we could boil this entire discussion down to one player: Hope Solo.
Solo is the best goalkeeper the USWNT has ever had, and she is firmly in the conversation for anyone who wants to debate the best goalkeeper of all time in women’s soccer.
Back in 2015, she was in great form. Her saves in the World Cup opener against Australia just might be the reason the USWNT won that game. She went on to be named the tournament’s best goalkeeper. Mistakes from 2015 Solo were rare, and she could be expected to make a spectacular save when called upon.
By 2019, after a whole bunch of off-the-field drama, Solo has been exiled from the team and Alyssa Naeher has stepped in. Naeher is the anti-Solo in many ways, and the concern was that the harsh, unrelenting spotlight of a World Cup may not bring the best out of her.
Early on, that narrative was given some fuel by a Naeher mistake in the round of 16, which allowed Spain to equalize in perhaps the only moments the USWNT looked to be at risk of exiting the 2019 tournament. But Naeher redeemed herself in the semifinal against England, saving a penalty. (To be fair, it was a poor penalty attempt.)
The 2015 USWNT went 540 minutes during the World Cup without conceding a goal, but that can probably be attributed to two things. The first is that they had Solo, who made at least a couple saves that went above and beyond normal duties.
The second is that the 2015 USWNT wasn’t taking that many risks and exposing itself defensively as much.
It’s easy to forget that USWNT had a bit of trouble getting its attack going in the early rounds of the 2015 World Cup – it was too static and struggled to gain attacking overloads – but that was because, in part, defensive solidity wasn’t compromised. The back line was expected to stay tight and disciplined, in a way the 2019 one was not.
It is worth noting that the 2015 team and the 2019 team allowed the exact same number of goals during their World Cup runs. For whatever defensively vulnerability the 2019 had, no one properly punished them. But that doesn’t mean the vulnerability didn’t exist.
So who wins, 2015 USWNT or 2019 USWNT?
The 2015 USWNT will probably attempt to weather the storm against the ultra-attacking 2019 team by sitting and countering. If the 2015 team doesn’t score on a set piece, it will probably find a way on a direct transition.
Again, the 2019 USWNT takes a super-aggressive approach to its attack, which means it can be caught out and exposed. But the 2019 USWNT is very clear on its identity, and it will gladly live and die by the sword.
So even if the 2015 USWNT scores first, the newer team has so many different ways to scramble defenses and create chances that an equalizer would feel inevitable. If the 19ers can’t score in the run of play, they will still find a way. For as good as the 2015 USWNT was on set pieces, the 2019 team probably matches them.
The 2019 team may be built around brutal aggression, but their match against France in the quarterfinal is a helpful blueprint for how they can adapt tactically. In that game, they played more of a counterattacking style, ceding possession to France specifically because they knew how deadly France could be if they got in behind.
When you look at what each attack can do, it’s hard to bet against the 2019 USWNT finding the goals to nab a lead at some point. Solo can be counted on to make one or two huge saves in a game, but it’s asking too much for her to stand on her head. Then, once the ’19 team gets the lead, they can do what they did against France, and just ride the game out.
In this alternate universe where a champion of World Cup champions is crowned, congratulations to the 2019 USWNT.
Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.
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