On fullback positioning and the double-edge sword of transitions – Equalizer Soccer

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Three games, three victories. There is plenty to go deep on regarding the United States women’s national team just five months from the 2023 World Cup — which we do all the time and will continue to do, and it’s why you should subscribe now — and there’s no denying there were major positives from this tournament.

Wednesday’s 2-1 victory over Brazil followed US victories over Canada and Japan in the past week. The Mallory Swanson show continued Wednesday with her seventh goal in five games this year, and Alex Morgan scored a phenomenal goal to break the first-half deadlock.

We’ll go deeper soon. For now, these are the three big talking points from Wednesday.

High and wide? Try high and central for the fullbacks

If you’re just starting to realize that Emily Fox and Crystal Dunn could be the United States’ two starting fullbacks at the World Cup — for one, you haven’t been reading along here. We’ve been talking about this.

Wednesday was a glimpse at why that is likely to be the case. Dunn started on the left, just as she did in the tournament opener against Canada, and pushed into high, central areas. This created overloads on the left side and gave the US options to break down Brazil’s rigid 4-4-2 shape.

This is notable in multiple ways. First, Dunn went 61 minutes, the most since 2021, before her pregnancy. It’s a clear sign that her fitness is building back up.

Second, this is exactly the type of option that Fox offers in the attack. Fullbacks are traditionally known to get high and wide, but Fox often likes to drift into central, attacking areas. She did that in this tournament and at times on Wednesday from the right side, but not as often as Dunn.

There were times when both Fox and Dunn got forward together, and defensive midfielder Andi Sullivan provided cover for the center backs. There are dangers to that, too. We’ll get to that…

Naomi Girma gets the nod

Which pair of center backs will US head coach Vlatko Andonovski go with come World Cup time? His preferred pairing over the past year has been Alana Cook and Becky Sauerbrunn. In the meantime, Naomi Girma impressed enough in her rookie National Women’s Soccer League season with the San Diego Wave to be named Rookie of the Year and Defender of the Year while being a finalist for MVP.

Girma brings a different profile to the US as the center back in the pool who can set the attack. She played higher up the field in her youth days and her comfort on the ball shows under pressure. Whether she is dribbling out of pressure or hitting a long ball (something the US really misses in the absence of Abby Dahlkemper), Girma gives the US an edge at center back.

On Wednesday, she got the nod alongside Sauerbrunn, which could ultimately end up as the 2023 World Cup pairing. Together, Cook and Girma (both Stanford products) could be the long-term solution for the US at center back. In the short term, they are likely competing for one spot.

Girma was mostly solid again on Wednesday (although she and Fox combined to lose a mark at the back post late in the match as the US conceded for the first time in 2023). Everyone from Andonovski to Megan Rapinoe heaped praise on Girma this week, for good reason. This tournament was another test passed.

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Dangers in transition

The flip side to the United States’ aggressive build-out, particularly as it relates to the fullbacks’ positioning, is how exposed the Americans could be on the counterattack. Brazil reminded the US (and the rest of the world) of that a half-hour into Wednesday’s match, when they dribbled through the US’ midfield twice in two minutes.

Carolin should have put Brazil ahead in the 30th minute after a spectacular counterattack, but her shot to the far post skipped inches wide. On that play, Dunn had pushed high and central into Brazil’s box with the US in possession. Brazil won the ball deep in its own territory and Beatriz dribbled straight up the spine of the field, alluding to Rose Lavelle’s lunging tackle and Lindsey Horan to put the US in a bad position.

The same thing happened again two minutes later. The US wasn’t scared off from the tactic, however. About 10 minutes later, Fox and Dunn both pushed high and overloaded the central area near the top of Brazil’s box. Brazil won the ball and tried to break again, and Sullivan had to take a yellow card to kill off that potential counter.

This is a trend to watch and try to fix for the United States. Japan managed to easily break pressure centrally early in Sunday’s match as well.

Of course, transition cuts both ways. The US continues to score on their own counterattacks and in transition, which is something all three opponents at the SheBelieves Cup failed to do. Those are the margins among some of the world’s top teams. Historically, there is no better team in transition than the United States, and this tournament reminded everyone that they still have a case for that crown.

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