Lindsey Horan And The Power Of Rage Saved The USWNT From Itself
9:12 AM EDT on July 27, 2023
In a much-anticipated rematch of the 2019 World Cup final, the Netherlands played the United States about as well as anyone could hope to, and perhaps doubly so given that the Dutch side is missing one of the best players in the world due to injury. Even without Vivianne Miedema, the Oranje had a lively attack on Wednesday, continuously flooding an over-matched USWNT midfield and dominating the transition phases of this crucial showdown.
Really, the Dutch only made one mistake in Wellington, but it cost them dearly, turning an early 1-0 lead into an eventual 1-1 draw. That mistake? They made Lindsey Horan angry, and an angry Lindsey Horan can, and did, completely change the complexion of the match, the group, and perhaps even the World Cup as a whole:
Though Horan is a force to be reckoned with on any corner kick, she probably is at her unstoppable best in the direct moments after nearly fighting her club teammate. Poor Daniëlle van de Donk, who plays with Horan in Lyon, was the target of the American captain's rage on Wednesday, thanks to a hard tackle just before the corner, one that somehow van de Donk escaped without even a yellow card:
The comedic timing from Horan can't be ignored here: Just moments after the referee all but told her and van de Donk to wear a Get Along shirt, the USWNT's No. 10, who had a pretty awful match up to that moment (and she wasn't alone in that regard), not only got onto the end of a corner, but rocketed it directly into the goal, pulling the U.S. out of precarious danger with aplomb. You can definitely script that, but it doesn't make it any less delightful to see.
This is especially true because pretty much everything that came before the U.S. goal, and some things that came after, were not delightful in the slightest. There are so many problems that the Netherlands threw into the spotlight that it's hard to know where to begin. Was the worst part that the USWNT's starting midfield trio of Horan, Andi Sullivan, and poor, over-matched Savannah DeMelo got completely worked in the first half, particularly by Jill Roord and Jackie Groenen? Or was it more demoralizing to see Crystal Dunn, one of the very best players on the team, suffer on and off the ball in the first half at her national team spot of left back? Similarly, Dunn's wingback partner, Emily Fox, had a nightmare of a match, as 19-year-old Esmee Brugts won that battle decisively on the Dutch left wing.
Horan's goal was a desperate equalizer because the Dutch earned their 1-0 lead in the 17th minute. It's hard to say that it had been coming, but the groundwork for the play that led to the goal was laid out from kickoff. First, Lieke Martens picked up the ball in the Dutch half, as she had been doing in the opening segment of the game, as part of Netherlands manager Andries Jonker's clear plan to flood the midfield zone with the 3-4-1-2 formation, against the USWNT's midfield trio. It worked here, because Martens is very good and was able to take a touch and completely take Sullivan and DeMelo out of the play before even crossing midfield.
That left acres of space for the PSG star, who faked Dunn into coming inside, giving Victoria Pelova acres of space down the right. After a failed cross into the box, the ball came back to Pelova, who laid it off to Roord. The new Manchester City midfielder had tons of free space, since Horan couldn't decide whether to hold position or close her off, and Roord slotted a perfect cross-goal shot through Horan's legs. Just like that, 1-0 Netherlands:
Though this was the first real Dutch attack of the game, and the first shot from the 2019 runners-up, it was a perfect distillation of how the first half went. Martens kept moving back into the midfield to flood the zone, and when she didn't, one of the three Dutch center backs pushed up to do the same from the other side. This essentially negated the American midfielders, who had to either pass the ball back or launch hopeful passes up to the forwards. Neither strategy worked all that well.
After halftime, things started to shift a bit in the U.S.'s favor, thanks to the insertion of the not-fully-fit Rose Lavelle for DeMelo, who had herself a bit of a nightmare half and who, it must be said, seems overwhelmed by the moment. Lavelle, scorer of a wonderful goal in the 2019 final, was definitely up for this game, and her inclusion in the midfield immediately made the U.S. attack click, as she constantly picked the ball up and looked to launch progressive passes forward. It was also Lavelle who hit the corner for Horan's goal, but that's less of a tactical development and more of an individual moment of brilliance.
If things don't change in the third game, against Portugal, or in the round of 16, though, the USWNT will have to rely on more and more of those moments of brilliance. That's because manager Vlatko Andonovski, like his predecessor Jill Ellis, seems to have forgotten that adaptability is part of the job. Let's put aside that he started the same exact XI as in the first game, an XI that only looked competent because Sophia Smith was majestic. Even with the USWNT riding momentum after Horan's equalizer, Andonovski made no substitutions to keep pushing a rapidly exhausting Dutch team back. And once that initial burst of momentum fell apart about 15 minutes later, there was still no movement on the American sideline for a sub.
Where was Lynn Williams? Where was Alyssa Thompson? Hell, Megan Rapinoe's crosses, both high and low, could have been useful! That no forwards were subbed out was a blunder from Andonovski, and he's lucky it didn't cost his team more than two points. Aside from Smith, who showed signs of life in between facing four defenders at all times (the Dutch clearly watched the first game and decided, hey, anyone else but Smith can beat us), the pair of Trinity Rodman and Alex Morgan were ineffective in creating and converting chances, just like in the first game. Rodman's best chance was probably an outside-the-box rocket just after the Dutch opener, while Morgan had a goal called back, rightfully, for offside:
Sometimes, forwards aren't in the the goal-scoring mood on a particular day, but it's ridiculous that Andonovski didn't throw on one of his other attacking talents to correct that issue. Attacking depth was the USWNT's biggest strength heading into the tournament, and it remains so now, save maybe for the center back pairing of Naomi Girma—who might have been the team's best player, if not definitely its calmest, against the Netherlands—and Julie Ertz, who made a match-saving block on Brugts after a gorgeous Dutch build-up:
With all that attacking talent on the bench, how did none of them get on the field to try to push for a winner that would ease the tension of the group stage? That's a question that will linger as the USWNT preps for Portugal in the group finale, though luckily for Andonovski, Horan Hulked up and headed the side into one point. A loss here wouldn't have been the end of things, by a long shot, but it's much easier to bounce back from a draw where the U.S. managed to out-shoot the Netherlands (18-5, though only 4-1 for shots on target), while still giving up most of the possession (43-57 in favor of the Dutch).
The team seems a bit lost in how to create blocks of cohesive attacking play right now, Smith excluded, and the trio of Sullivan-Horan-DeMelo simply can't see any more time together if the USWNT is going to three-peat. Andonovski had his detractors coming into this tournament, and this is now the moment where he must figure out what went wrong and make some pretty obvious adjustments. Worryingly, he spoke to the media after the match and, essentially, patted himself and his players on the back for a game that they were closer to losing than to winning:
If this is the way the rest of the World Cup is going to go, well, the U.S. might still make the round of 16—it probably will, let's be real—and it might even go all the way to a third consecutive trophy. It just shouldn't be quite this hard, and quite this fraught. The Netherlands showed how to beat the USWNT, and the only reason it didn't was because of one pissed off Coloradoan wearing No. 10. Will the USWNT have to rely on that, or on Smith playing out of her mind, or on Ertz saving the day? It's going to be a shorter tournament than anyone expected if the answer to that follows along with what we saw in Wellington.