USWNT 0 Mexico 2: U.S. stumbles as Ovalle leads Mexico’s attack

Mexico held the United States to a 2-0 loss with a confident performance in its third group game of the CONCACAF W Gold Cup, winning Group A. The goals were the first that the USWNT had conceded to Mexico since 2010, also during a regional tournament. For the USWNT, it was a game riddled with errors from a sub-optimal lineup that couldn’t figure out how to break Mexico’s pressure.

“We just didn’t play nearly our best,” forward Alex Morgan said after the match on Paramount+. “We found some pockets here and there, but not nearly enough. Didn’t execute on the chances we had. I don’t think we tested the goalkeeper, I think we got broken down way too easily.”

Mexico quick start, USWNT unforced errors

Mexico converted its relentless pressure on the United States into the first goal of the match, taking advantage of yet another defensive error in the 38th minute with a fast transition that ultimately bamboozled veterans Becky Sauerbrunn and Alyssa Naeher. Sauerbrunn succumbed to the pressure of having Lizbeth Ovalle on her shoulder in a two-on-two situation and botched her attempted clearance. Naeher was too late to commit to going after Ovalle in the box and got chipped.

It was a beautiful goal and a well-deserved reward for a team that had been forcing cumulative errors out of the U.S. all half long, particularly from a slow defensive unit between Sauerbrunn, Abby Dahlkemper, and Sam Coffey. Even Crystal Dunn had issues with Mexico’s speed, to be expected at 31 against the 24-year-old Ovalle. Only defender Emily Fox really pushed the tempo out of the back, bursting into the midfield when she could and generating one of the team’s better chance at goal in the first half with a shot low and away at range that forced a corner kick.

Of those three players, Coffey in particular has the most to lose as a younger midfielder in a team that is still looking for a more cohesive identity. Sauerbrunn and Dahlkemper have both had excellent years with the U.S., and the center back unit has already begun transitioning definitively to the Naomi Girma era. But Coffey is still in the hunt for more minutes, let alone a starting position, and she looked slightly overwhelmed for most of the first half. Although, to be fair, her decision-making was no worse than many of the other errors all over the field.

“We play forward, we break lines. Now we’re running through their backline, don’t execute the final pass,” interim head coach Twila Kilgore said after the match. “They recover, we get the ball back, we don’t execute the final pass again, then they get a goal kick. It’s two to three moments, back-to-back, that are fixable. We just go right back to basics … you just can’t afford to have those moments back-to-back in a game.”

Adjustments at halftime

Kilgore made two substitutions at halftime: Morgan on for Sophia Smith, and Emily Sonnett on for Lynn Williams. With the team in a 4-2-3-1 Sonnett was clearly there to bolster Coffey’s presence and to try to stop Mexico from disrupting the midfield. It did seem to stop some of the bleeding but then there was the matter of converting more midfield possession into more entries into the final third.

That didn’t happen even when Kilgore made further substitutions, bringing on Midge Purce for Fox and Korbin Albert for Coffey in the 71st minute, then Jaedyn Shaw for Rose Lavelle in the 78th minute.

Trinity Rodman did her best, and we saw more of the interesting evolution of Morgan from focal target of the attack into a provider for those around her. But it was ultimately for naught as Mexico sealed the team’s fate in stoppage time off a great long-range goal by Mayra Pelayo.

Pressure on Emma Hayes already

This is not yet Emma Hayes’ team, but it’d be foolish to assume she has no input on what Kilgore is doing. The longer this team takes to work out what issues it can before Hayes takes over the team in May, the less time Hayes has to get them into Olympic shape.

Against weaker opponents, the USWNT looked quick, aggressive and somewhat creative. Against a tactically and technically proficient Mexico that had a good tournament thus far, they looked uncertain and slow, a repeat of many of the issues that plagued them in the World Cup.

The decision to play a more veteran lineup against this Mexico is certainly not wrong in a general sense, but playing such a slow central defensive unit and a keeper who hasn’t looked at her peak for a while now against the toughest opponent in the group befuddles comprehension. Perhaps it was a matter of limited minutes even though it’s still NWSL preseason, but any one of Naomi Girma, Tierna Davidson, or Jenna Nighswonger needed to be inserted into this lineup to have a hope of not just containing Mexico, but being able to distribute out of the back and enable the team to quickly break one if not two lines of pressure right away.

Including so many younger or newer players in this roster is an encouraging sign – Shaw, Olivia Moultrie, Albert, et. al. But why not start trusting those players to carry more of the team in a situation that seems perfect in prepping them for a major tournament? These aren’t games of no consequence, but they’re not as weighty as an Olympics, and by the third group game, the US had already qualified to advance. Give the younger players a real test over 45, 60, or 90 minutes instead of falling back on the familiar and comfortable.

Mexico dictated the match

Mexico’s opener against Argentina wasn’t the most instructive match, but Mexico’s grown into this group stage. Yes, execution errors were happening everywhere for the U.S., but Mexico could have actually won this match 4-0 if not for the crossbar and then a pair of strong saves from Alyssa Naeher late in the second half, though Maryra Pelayo’s incredible golazo in stoppage time put the perfect exclamation point on Monday night.

That wildly disappointing 2022 Concacaf W Championship, when Mexico hosted and then flamed out in the group stage feels like ancient history now. Head coach Pedro López Ramos had the right game plan, and his side executed perfectly. They were able to defend their lead, they were able to discomfort the USWNT via a high press, they won corners, they had excellent long-range looks. All in all, it was more than just Mexico playing to their potential, it was simply a great performance — and one that could provide some helpful motivation for further investment into the program.

“There are always things to improve,” López Ramos said after the match, via an interpreter. “I would like to be in the final of a World Cup, for example. I enjoyed every single moment when we were attacking and when we were defending. I believe that the players went out without restrictions. They went out to enjoy the pitch, and you have seen the results. And I hope this is not isolated. I hope we can repeat this result.”

What’s next?

The U.S. qualified for the knockout rounds with its win against Argentina on Friday. Losing to Mexico means the USWNT finished second in Group A and will have to wait until Wednesday to see who they face in the knockout round.

The final places for the quarterfinals will be decided Tuesday when Colombia faces Puerto Rico and Brazil faces Panama and then on Wednesday when Canada goes against Costa Rica and Paraguay takes on El Salvador. The top two teams from each group advance, plus the next highest third place teams. Canada and Brazil have qualified for the quarterfinals already, but Tuesday and Wednesday will determine their, and everyone else’s, place going into the next round as the tournament re-seeds.

(Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

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