After winning 18 of its 20 matches last year, the U.S. has started out 2019 in much more subdued fashion

The U.S. women’s national team did not have the SheBelieves Cup it was hoping for.

Amid some typically strong attacking displays, Jill Ellis’ side was disjointed in midfield and defense for much of the tournament. As a result, the U.S. conceded four goals in three games and only managed a second-place finish in the four-team tournament.

The U.S. drew Japan and England 2-2 to begin the SheBelieves Cup before a narrow 1-0 win over Brazil to close out the tournament.

Here are five takeaways from the USWNT’s underwhelming SheBelieves Cup.

Lindsey Horan was sidelined for the SheBelieves Cup with a quad injury, which left an opening at the box-to-box role in the team’s three-player central midfield. Sam Mewis or McCall Zerboni seemed logical choices to fill that position, but Ellis surprised many when she started Mallory Pugh, who is normally a winger, in the No. 8 role against Japan and England.

The experiment didn’t pay off. Pugh and Rose Lavelle didn’t provide adequate strength in possession and defensive protection in front of No. 6 Julie Ertz and the back line. Mewis was thankfully introduced in the team’s finale against Brazil and unsurprisingly improved the USWNT’s midfield balance with her defensive tenacity and ability to keep the ball. 

Speaking of Ertz, Ellis also experimented with dropping her back between the two center backs to change the USWNT’s 4-3-3 setup to more of a 5-2-3. The switch did give the U.S. some improved possession when playing out of the back, but it also left them too open in the midfield – especially when Pugh and Lavelle were the two players remaining in the center of the park. 

Heading into last fall it appeared as though Tierna Davidson’s rapid rise would potentially culminate in a starting berth at the World Cup. Davidson made the breakthrough to the USWNT as a 19-year-old in 2018, starting all but one of her team’s games last year prior to suffering a broken ankle in September.

Davidson’s hopes of starting in France aren’t buried yet, but Abby Dahlkemper now has a firm advantage in the race to be the team’s second center back next to Becky Sauerbrunn at the World Cup. Dahlkemper turned in a solid SheBelieves Cup performance while playing every minute. Meanwhile, Davidson struggled. She was at least partially at fault on both Japanese goals, as well as England’s second.

Davidson may be more valuable to Ellis as a bench option regardless, as she brings the ability to play center back, left back and even defensive midfield should the game situation require. The USWNT’s youngest player has a bright future, but she may have to settle for a bench role at her first World Cup.

Christen Press has had a fantastic start to 2019. The 30-year-old was the USWNT’s best player in its January friendlies against France and Spain, before building on that momentum with a solid SheBelieves Cup.

Press came off the bench against Japan and immediately grabbed an assist, which caused Ellis to admit after the game that Press was forcing her into selection issues with her standout displays.

After a quieter performance against England, Press was again dynamic against Brazil after she was introduced at halftime. This time Ellis opted to deploy Press in central midfield, rather than the outside forward position she has occupied for the USWNT recently.

It was an intriguing development, as Press put in a solid two-way display operating from the No. 10 position. Could she challenge the incumbent Lavelle for the starting role as the team’s central midfield playmaker?

If Press wants to see extended minutes with the USWNT that may be her best bet, and that’s due in large part to the next takeaway.

The USWNT scored five goals at the SheBelieves Cup, all of which came from its exceedingly dangerous front three of Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath and Alex Morgan.

Heath appears to be in the form of her career, as she was the USA’s best player throughout the tournament, consistently creating opportunities for teammates while scoring a pair of goals herself. Rapinoe also scored twice over the three-game tournament, with her half-volley against England the pick of her team’s goals in the SheBelieves Cup.

Morgan scored against Japan but endured frustrating outings against England and Brazil as she remains stuck on 99 international goals. One goal in five games in 2019 isn’t the rate of return we’re used to seeing from Morgan, but she’s getting in good spots and it appears to be a matter of time before she gets back to the form that saw her score 18 goals in 19 games last year.

Rapinoe, Heath and Morgan are all set to take part in their third World Cup this summer and despite some of the team’s fresh faces, it appears the USWNT will go as far as their veteran attacking trio will take them in France.

The USWNT was phenomenal in 2018, winning 18 and drawing two of its 20 games last year. It scored 65 goals in those matches and conceded just 10.

But 2019 has been a different prospect altogether, as Ellis’ side has just two wins in five, to go along with two draws and a defeat. It has scored seven and conceded seven.

It’s not a perfect comparison, as the USWNT padded its stats in 2018 with several games against minnows while in 2019, the U.S. has only faced teams in the top 12 of FIFA’s world rankings.

Still, the U.S. defeated England and Japan in 2018, while drawing France. In 2019 it only managed draws against England and Japan while losing to France. It’s clear that this year hasn’t started out how Ellis would have hoped – both from a performance and a results standpoint.

While the U.S. was on its incredible run last year there were whispers that it may have been peaking too soon. Those whispers will get a little louder after a lackluster SheBelieves Cup.

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