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Where the USWNT defense went wrong against England and Spain

Lindsey Horan goes up for a header against Maitane López during USWNT’s loss to Spain on Tuesday. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Coming into this European swing, the U.S. women’s national team hadn’t lost consecutive games since March 2017. This week, while handling the emotional weight of the Sally Yates report that outlined systemic abuse and sexual assault in the NWSL, the back-to-back World Cup champions watched that streak come to an end with a 2-1 loss to England on Friday and a 2-0 defeat to Spain on Tuesday.

Multiple defensive errors led to four goals conceded during the two-game trip. Even though many of the USWNT’s issues involved the midfield, head coach Vlatko Andonovski made changes only to defense in the starting lineup for the second game against Spain.

In goal, Casey Murphy came in for Alyssa Naeher. On the backline, Becky Sauerbrunn replaced Naomi Girma at center back, Hailie Mace took over at fullback for Sofia Huerta and Carson Pickett started on the left side for Emily Fox, who was ruled out of the Spain friendly after taking a knock to the head against England. Veteran defender Kelley O’Hara was absent for both games.

Girma’s absence from the starting XI against Spain was the biggest surprise coming off of her impressive performance against England. In that game, the NWSL rookie played solid defense, distributed the ball well to the attack and singlehandedly shut down a breakaway.

The back-to-back losses were a wake-up call for the USWNT, giving Andonovski some work to do in the nine months leading up to the FIFA World Cup. Here is a closer look at the defensive errors that contributed to the USWNT’s difficulties in Europe.

Defending runs down the flank and crosses in front of goal

In a recurring play that resulted in a goal for both England and Spain, the opposing player ran down the left channel and sent a cross in behind the center backs, where another opponent was waiting to score. Considering it resulted in a goal twice, this is a key weakness for the USWNT and something Andonovski needs to act on, whether it requires marking more tightly in front of goal or reading balls better from out wide.

2-0 Spain

Spain set up a give-and-go in the midfield that sent Oihane Hernández flying down the sideline past U.S. fullback Crystal Dunn. As Sauerbrunn filled the space between Dunn and the goal, Cook was left to cover Esther González, who stood at the penalty spot between the two U.S. center backs. A couple of steps too far from González, Cook couldn’t shut down González’s one-time volley past Murphy.

1-0 England

U.S. midfielder Lindsey Horan lost sight of her player and couldn’t read the pass from England’s Lucy Bronze, who started the play. Beth Mead got behind Emily Fox and took a run down the sideline before sending the ball across the box. Cook got a foot on it but not enough to slow down the play, and England’s Lauren Hemp slotted it away. Cook was positioned well on the ball side of Hemp, but due to an unlucky slip, she lost control of the interception.

Knowing roles in zonal coverage

Zonal coverage is the modern-day preference to player marking, as long as players know which zone is theirs and are constantly communicating between one another. At various times in their half of the pitch, the USWNT didn’t look confident in whose job it was to step up to challenge for the ball. That was especially true in the midfield, where they might have benefitted from shifting their 4-3-3 formation to a 4-5-1 for more support.

The lack of pressure led to multiple shots against that, fortunately for the U.S., went wide. They paid the price when they conceded their first goal against Spain.

1-0 Spain

Spain opened the scoring Tuesday off a corner kick. The USWNT had organized in a zonal marking system, with five players in a line at the top of the six-yard box, another on the side of the six, one inside in front of the goal, and two on the cluster of five Spanish players who started in the middle of the 18 and ran toward goal. 

After the ball pinged off five red shirts, Laia Codina buried it from the top of the six. Carson Pickett slipped before reaching what probably would have been her zone, and there appeared to be confusion among the U.S. players over who should step up to cover that area. In the end, none of them challenged the ball.

Conclusion

With the World Cup looming, there’s no need to panic yet. The USWNT was missing veterans like O’Hara, Mallory Pugh and Alex Morgan, and Andonovski rotated in players who hadn’t gotten many minutes previously with this group. Chemistry takes time.

There’s another international window in November, when the U.S. will have a chance to smooth out their errors against World No. 2 Germany, the 2022 Euro Cup finalists. If the USWNT loses those games, too, we’ll likely be having a different conversation in a month.

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.

Sofia Huerta signs contract extension with Seattle through 2027

(Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

Former Oregon soccer players detail instances of verbal abuse from former USWNT assistant

(Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via Imagn Content Services)

Members of the Oregon women’s soccer team are saying they received harsh treatment and even verbal abuse from head coach and former USWNT assistant Graeme Abel. 

During the 2023 season, the team had zero wins, and upon its conclusion a total of 12 of the team’s 29 players departed the team. Former players told The Oregonian that Abel would verbally attack them, threaten to kick them off the team and at times would even throw objects.

"When I’d make a mistake at practice, it felt like he made it a job to embarrass you to the point where you just wanted to walk off the field,” one player said. “He’d stop the practice – and I know it’s college soccer, it’s very competitive — but he’d stop practice and just keep going nonstop on this one thing."

In total, the Oregonian spoke with 14 former players – including 12 who agreed to be interviewed in depth. All said that they experienced verbal abuse. Six of the players were among those who transferred following the season. 

One instance of Abel’s tirades included him throwing a water bottle that narrowly missed players’ heads. 

“He kicked all of our staff out of the locker room, kicked a trash can, threw a white board, sat on the trash can and started screaming,” one player recounted. “He wanted us to tell him what we thought went wrong in the game. Me and another player spoke up, and he said, ‘You’re just (expletive) wrong.’ And that if we didn’t want to be in this program, we could all quit, and he’d sign our release paperwork tomorrow.”

While Abel was not made available for an interview, he did say in a statement that “at no point have I used threatening statements or financial repercussions as a part of coaching.”

Instances of emotional distress stemming from Abel’s alleged harsh treatment date back to 2021 – his first full year leading the team following an abbreviated 2020 campaign.

Other former players contacted by The Oregonian detailed positive overall experiences, and described his style as “normal coaching.”

Others, like USWNT players Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey Horan, did not respond to requests for comment, although Sauerbrunn wrote in 2019 that she had a “great relationship” with Abel. 

Still, multiple players interviewed had similar stories, with one saying that girls would be “crying in the locker room” after practice because of what he would tell players. Attempts to speak with the administration about his behavior, players say, was “discouraging.”

“His office is like the scariest place,” one player said. “You’d have to sit there while he’d belittle you and say all these nasty things, and gaslight you into believing you’re not good enough. ... Our team fell apart because of the environment he created. We were just trying to get through the day. There was no way we could focus on soccer.”

Multiple players said they experienced suicidal ideation while playing at Oregon. In part of his statement, Abel wrote that “at no time do we put our student-athletes in any danger.”

Abel is currently in his fifth and final year of his contract at Oregon.

Gotham FC unveil Championship rings ahead of banner reveal

Gotham FC players celebrate Lynn Williams' goal in the first half of the 2023 NWSL Championship. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

Gotham FC has unveiled their 2023 NWSL championship rings — and safe to say, they deliver.

The reveal has led to a little bit of trash talk ahead of the team’s matchup with Kansas City this weekend, as both teams have NFL owners. While the Current are co-owned by Patrick and Brittany Mahomes, former Giants quarterback Eli Manning is a co-owner of Gotham. 

On Wednesday, Manning took to Sportscenter to give Mahomes a bit of a hard time.

“He may have one more Super Bowl ring than me, but he does not have a NWSL championship ring like I do,” Manning joked.

“Come Sunday night at Red Bull Arena, April 14th, we’re dropping the banner on Kansas City. We got the ring ceremony, the players get their rings and their championship afterwards. This is it, I’ve got something to talk a little trash to him about because I can’t do it about football anymore, I gotta find something else.”

The appearance came after Manning posted to social media, inviting Mahomes to “come see [the championship ring] up close this Sunday.”

Mahomes responded in kind, writing that “we’ll see y’all Sunday!”

Gotham takes on current league-leaders Kansas City on Sunday at 6pm ET. The game is available on NWSL+.

Oregon State hit by transfer portal again as Raegan Beers departs

ALBANY, NEW YORK - MARCH 31: Raegan Beers #15 of the Oregon State Beavers shoots a free throw during the first half against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at MVP Arena on March 31, 2024 in Albany, New York. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Oregon State leading scorer and rebounder Raegan Beers announced on Thursday that she is entering the transfer portal. 

"Thank you for all of your endless love and support these past two years," she posted on social media. "I will never forget my time at OSU and I am thankful for the opportunity I had to meet and play with incredible people. My journey as a Beav was a special one and I am grateful for my teammates, coaches, fans, and friends who have changed my life throughout my time here."

A sophomore forward, Beers is a two-time All-Pac-12 selection who averaged 17.5 points per game last season while shooting 66.4 percent from the field. She also added 10.3 rebounds en route to earning third-team All-American honors from the AP. 

She’s the fourth Oregon State starter – and seventh player overall – to hit the portal this offseason. She joins Talia von Oelhoggen and Timea Gardiner in the transfer portal, as well as starting freshman Donovyn Hunter. 

Beers and Gardiner were both top-10 recruits in ESPN rankings coming out of high school. 

With the dissolution of the Pac-12, the program will join the WCC next season and no longer be a part of the Power 5.

Conference realignment is hitting the team hard, with coach Scott Rueck saying during the tournament that he knew it could seriously affect his team moving forward. 

"That's reality," Rueck said. "I can't control that, other than just keep doing what I'm doing. I think the opportunity within that for a leader provides a discipline that you'd better be on your A-game all the time. You'd better take care of people, and you'd better provide a great experience. That's the approach going forward and what happens, happens. We'll find a way."

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