Somewhere around the 19th minute, former USWNT coach Tony DiCicco said that if the United States beat France in the final of the Algarve Cup, everything would be fine. The United States went on to win 2-0 off of first half goals by Julie Johnston and Christen Press, but it's harder to say if everything is truly fine.
True, after some early pressure by the French, the U.S. managed to settle in and thwart many of their attempts to bring the ball through the midfield. True, Morgan Brian got stuck in and did good defensive work, which in turn gave Lauren Holiday more freedom to attack and didn't force her to distribute from deep. True, Julie Johnston looked solid and comfortable paired with Becky Sauerbrunn in central defense.
But France fielded a starting lineup without several key players, including Elodie Thomis, Elise Bussaglia, Marie-Laure Delie, and 5'11" (6'3" including hair) central defender Wendie Renard, who was injured. After their initial forays into their attacking third, they never seemed to quite settle and in fact looked noticeably tired as the game wore on - something to be expected in their fourth game in eight days. Even after subs Lavogez, Dali, and Delie came on, France never truly threatened.
The United States started what has become a familiar lineup over the course of this tournament with Carli Lloyd, Morgan Brian, Lauren Holiday, and Christen Press in the midfield. Aside from Brian, who stayed deep, Ellis seems fine letting Lloyd, Press, and to some extent Holiday float where they're needed. This may be part of the answer to the chorus of questions asking why Ellis has been pushing Lloyd far right instead of letting her play centrally, where she seems to be most effective. Nominally Lloyd is listed in lineups as a winger, but in essence Carli Lloyd has license to do what Carli Lloyd wants. Throughout the tournament, Ellis' use of Lloyd, Brian, and Holiday felt like someone realizing she had quite a few talented midfielders so she had better deploy them all at once, followed by vague hand-waving gestures at the formation.
Notable starts went to Amy Rodriguez, who in recent months has been virtually persona non grata, and Julie Johnston at center back. Johnston already had two starts in this tournament but for someone who only played three games in all of 2014, three starts in one tourney could herald a more extensive role for Johnston come the World Cup. Johnston sent a few decent long balls up, including one in the 51' for Alex Morgan, who was just unable to finish and sent the ball into the side netting.
Alex Morgan didn't get many opportunities in front of goal, nor did Amy Rodriguez threaten often. Rodriguez had a golden opportunity in the 46' from a great layoff by Ali Krieger, leaving a wide open Rodriguez with the ball in front of goal. Rodriguez almost seemed surprised by the gift and shot wide.
A-Rod seems to be struggling once again for country despite her phenomenal last season for club. This may be an unfair assessment - after all, she has yet to play a full 90 as Ellis subbed her on and off throughout the tournament and she managed a goal against Switzerland, staying calm despite being surrounded and managing to turn and shoot. She may also be lacking a crucial element of her attack in service by Lauren Holiday, frequently her partner in crime at FC Kansas City but asked to sit much deeper by Jill Ellis.
Holiday's service was key in the first goal by Johnston, who barely had to flick her head to get the ball on net. Johnston was poorly defended, just as in Alex Morgan's volley against Switzerland. Set pieces have always been important for the U.S. Out of the seven goals scored in four games at the Algarve this year, two were from set pieces (both delivered by Holiday), one was a penalty kick, and the other four were from open play.
The second goal was a beautiful run from Christen Press, who trailed three helpless defenders as she cleanly slotted the ball home. Press, who was also asked to play more of a floating midfield role throughout the tournament rather than being used as a pure attacker, has shown moments of quality and could be another player headed for a World Cup starting spot.
Here's her goal from our friends at Stars and Stripes FC via a Vine from US Soccer Post:
The second half slowed down somewhat. Kelley O'Hara subbed in for Amy Rodriguez in the 67' but was not shifted into her usual role at fullback, instead coming on at left mid. She also had several quality moments, creating some service for Alex Morgan and generally making life tough for the French midfield. O'Hara is another player who hasn't seen regular minutes lately but whose utility may be too much for Ellis to ever completely leave her off a roster.
Sydney Leroux subbed in for Christen Press in the 75' but didn't manage much in the time she was given. The most exciting moment of the second half came in the 81' when Hope Solo was called on to make a penalty save off Amandine Henry after Meghan Klingenberg tugged down Delie in the box. Henry took the shot with pace but Solo read it correctly and dived right for a solid block. Solo looked sharp all game but was rarely in any kind of deep trouble.
The last ten minutes of the game saw subs by Shannon Boxx, Abby Wambach, and Megan Rapinoe for Brian, Klingenberg, and Morgan respectively. Boxx is something of a puzzle - does Ellis really intend to use her at the World Cup? At 37, she would be the second-oldest player on the team after 39-year-old Christie Rampone, and Ellis seems intent on plugging Morgan Brian into the DM role. Boxx played 30 minutes total throughout the tourney, subbing on late and never playing more than fifteen minutes of regulation in any given game. Even if Ellis were truly attempting to ease Boxx back into match fitness, one would expect at least thirty or forty minutes at a time from Boxx.
The United States seemed mostly comfortable against a French side that, despite its better possession and passing, still couldn't finish on the day. France has garnered a reputation of faltering at the last step, which goes to DiCicco's comments about the U.S. being just fine. A 2-0 win against a strong French side would certainly say more about the U.S. than this win against a France that just couldn't quite get it together. If Renard had been in the box on Johnston's goal, who can say what might have happened.
What-ifs aside, at the very least the U.S. will go into their final slate of pre-World Cup games with a confidence boost. With New Zealand, Ireland, Mexico, and South Korea up next, France was the last chance for a true test of mettle. Test results: inconclusive.
Notes: Algarve is apparently a training ground for referees and it was extremely apparent in this game. The ref micromanaged nearly every free kick and called a raft of what should have been non-fouls. The linesmen got several offside calls wrong as well. Hopefully FIFA will continue to fund training and development opportunities for female refs at all levels of the game.