This is ‘Watching With…’. Our soccer staff sits down with past players, coaches, and other experts and watch a World Cup match together, dissecting the matches as the teams compete for the coveted World Cup trophy.
As Lindsey Horan’s thumping header sailed past Netherlands’ goalkeeper Daphne van Domselaar, the crowd roared — and not just the crowd gathered at Wellington Regional Stadium in New Zealand. This also applied to the many crowds throughout the United States who gathered to watch the U.S. women’s national team, including at Brother John’s, a barbecue restaurant in Tucson, Arizona.
Seated next to me at that restaurant while the United States’ 1-1 draw with the Netherlands played out on a large projector screen was long-time professional player and current coach Becca Moros.
Moros played all over the U.S. and was teammates with USWNT legends like Alex Morgan, Kelley O’Hara, Becky Sauerbrunn, Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd. She also played under U.S. manager Vlatko Andonvoski with FC Kansas City. After the end of her playing career, Moros served as an assistant for NJ/NY Gotham, where she worked with Lloyd and injured U.S. star Mallory Swanson before taking over as the head women’s soccer coach at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Moros’ wealth of knowledge and connections inside the game allowed her to provide invaluable insights into the USWNT’s biggest World Cup match yet and the team’s key characters.
What was Morgan like as a teammate? Is there something most people don’t know about Sauerbrunn? How much is the U.S. missing her at the World Cup? Can you stop Horan on set pieces?
As I found out on Wednesday night, conversation with Moros contains all sorts of answers to questions like that, and it’s never dull.
With a few minutes until kickoff, now is the perfect time to dig into the USWNT’s lineup.
Joe Lowery: “The lineup is the same as it was in the last game. I was surprised to see Ertz start at center back against Vietnam, and she’s back in the lineup in that spot again today. Does that surprise you at all?”
Becca Moros: “I’ve always preferred Julie Ertz as a center back. Always. I was secretly happy about that in the last game. I like a different style of center midfielder than what the U.S. plays. I think she’s a great center midfielder, too, so that’s no knock on her or on the U.S.’s style of play, but I’ve always thought she has a good personality for (center back). Just her energy is something that everybody can feed off of. The confidence that she has – I think confidence goes a long way in the backline and keeping people out. So I think it’s a great place for her…And I definitely think the experience with the youth is always helpful. I really rate (Naomi) Girma. Two soccer players of that caliber can mesh quickly.”
Lowery: “I thought it was interesting in the last game that Savannah DeMelo came in and made her first-ever start for the U.S. and she’s starting again tonight. Rose Lavelle is still recovering from an injury, but for you as a coach now, how do you think about that situation in midfield?”
Moros: “Well the thing is, DeMelo and Girma were on my draft board with Gotham. They were big, big favorites of mine, so I’ve always liked the way she plays. So I might have a little bias there. I obviously like Rose. Her top level is probably above where DeMelo’s is right now, but that’s to be expected. If Vlatko and the team feel confident in their roster and the depth of the roster, then they should be able to interchange players and do reasonably well.”
Now with the game underway, both teams are feeling each other out. Morgan, one of Moros’ old teammates, nearly directs a chance on goal in the sixth minute after a pass from Crystal Dunn somehow makes its way through a crowd of Dutch defenders.
Lowery: “That’s a lot of what makes Alex Morgan so dangerous, right? She’s always hanging on on the last shoulder of the defender, she never turns off.”
Moros: “The amount of power she has on a half chance is unbelievable. I don’t even know how she does it.”
Lowery: “What do you remember of Morgan as a teammate?”
Moros: “It’s interesting, I played with Alex Morgan in her breakout year. We were in Western New York. It was the last year of the WPS (Women’s Professional Soccer, 2011). We ended up winning a championship, but she kind of came off the bench for the first half of the season. It was the typical story of young players coming in, having to earn your time. But then she went to the World Cup…and from then on, she was Alex Morgan. She took the starting position and she started emerging as a real powerhouse and that was a special time. For us as a team, I mean that was Marta, Christian Sinclair, and Alex Morgan as a frontline all at once. The number of goals scored in that frontline was just unbelievable. The number of assists they had for each other was unbelievable.”
Just over 15 minutes into the first half, the Netherlands break through the U.S. and move into the final third. Jill Roord eventually caps off the lovely piece of possession with a goal, putting her team up 1-0.
Moros: “Oh, no. That’s early. That’s dangerous. That’s really, really early.”
Lowery: “You look at the timing as more of a negative rather than a positive of there being time to get back?”
Moros: “It’s unusual for the U.S. to get scored on that early. Now it’s an opportunity for them to make a statement and the U.S. has always been a statement style of team.”
Lowery: “Andi Sullivan, that’s where the breakout starts here, isn’t it? The Netherlands have a single pivot with two free eights or No. 10s. The U.S. have Sullivan deep as the six and then two free eights of their own. So Sullivan just gets overloaded there by the two Dutch players. The Netherlands break the lines, Sullivan shifts over…”
Moros: “I don’t love the backline’s shape either. Too narrow. As a former outside back, that’s the first thing I’m looking at…Girma was high, and then Dunn came in pretty high and narrow too. That leaves you really open.”
As the first half wears on with the U.S. searching for an equalizer, the conversation strays to U.S. manager Vlatko Andonovski.
Lowery: “What was it like playing for him?”
Moros: “He always made a point of beating the players onto the field and staying longer than anybody. That’s something I do to this day. I would never let a player beat me onto the field or stay longer than I’m willing to be out there. It’s a really important thing to lead by example and he always did that…He reminds me more of an old Italian style manager: Super organized, hard-hitting, disciplined, loyal, combative. Those are things that he really stands out for, and everybody who plays for him respects him.
Down a goal, the U.S. hasn’t created any clear-cut chances in the first 30 minutes of the match. They earn a corner in the 35th minute, though, with a chance to run a set play.
Lowery: “I don’t know how you deal with Horan and Ertz both in the box. If you’re game-planning for them, how do you want to defend those two?”
Moros: “I mean, bump them as much as possible as early and often as you can. Don’t let them go where they want to go and don’t let them get a free header. They’re gonna get something on the ball either way, right? They always do. The last thing you want is either of those two with a free run.”
Lowery: “Even without the free run, it feels like sometimes it doesn’t matter.”
For those wondering about our food choices: I ordered the pulled pork and Moros went for the burnt end nachos. Maybe the lack of barbecue is what’s holding the USWNT back? Or maybe the team just misses its usual captain, Becky Sauerbrunn, who is missing this World Cup through injury.
Lowery: “Is there a point in this game when players are thinking ‘it would be awfully nice to have our captain on the field’?”
Moros: “I mean, they’d probably say that for the Netherlands’ goal, right? There’s disorganization and you’re just looking at who would’ve solved that problem sooner or delayed it at the right moment…Someone like Becky is very calculated and organized and deliberate in every movement. She doesn’t move independently. She moves with the entire line in mind at all times. There are lots of times when you want that confidence, you want that leadership, you want that clear voice, that decisive decision making.”
Lowery: “Do you have a favorite Becky Sauerbrunn story?”
Moros: “Oh my God. I love Becky to death. Becky and I are around the same age (both are 38). We played together forever. We played on some youth national teams together. We’re both big readers, big soccer heads, love the game, love to talk about it. I hope one day, maybe, we’ll coach together. That would be a big thing if we could do that one day together. But I’d say the biggest surprise Becky ever, ever laid on me is when I found out she was a gamer.”
Lowery: “Oh, really?”
Moros: “I had no idea. Like, none. I thought she was a reader. Just solitary. And then I found out, I was like, ‘you’re gaming in there this whole time?’I had no idea. None whatsoever. She never talked about it. There’s no way. And I’d known her forever and I was like, ‘you’re lying’.”
Lowery: “Do you know what she was playing?”
Moros: “I don’t know, Call of Duty? I don’t even know. I don’t play games. She never invited me to play games, she never asked me if I did play games.”
Lowery: “You don’t play games because she never asked you to! The disrespect.”
Moros: “Not a conversation about it for a decade! And she’s really good.”
Lowery: “So it took you a decade to learn that?”
Moros: “At least. Maybe 15 years. We started playing together when we were around 16. I lived with her and didn’t know.”
With just minutes left in the first half, attention shifts to possible changes Andonovski could make to help his team find a goal in the second 45 minutes.
Moros: “Well, now I’m really curious about what happens at halftime. What do you do and how do you regroup? What positives do you draw and where do you feel like you have opportunities to be better? When do you make some changes?”
Lowery: “Is this about the time, around the 40-minute mark, where you start to think about that stuff as a coach?”
Moros: “I think you’re going into the half and you’re thinking ‘Okay, if we really need to, who would we change?’ And then showing some visuals that show where opportunities are, or maybe where we’re vulnerable and how we want to respond.”
Andonovski does make a substitution at halftime, and it turns out to be the team’s only change of the game. Rose Lavelle is on for Savannah DeMelo.
Lowery: “One of your last games with Gotham was against OL Reign in 2021. Lavelle started that game. What’s it like trying to prepare to play against her?”
Moros: “Her creativity and her ability to just counter whatever defenders throw at her is special. You have to be very organized against players like that because defending them individually is a tall task. But you want to create some predictability so the next person can defend her better, or you want to put her into a position where her next option is just a so-so option. That’s a collective effort.”
Lavelle steps up to take a corner in the 62nd minute. She serves in a well-weighted ball that connects with Horan’s head and flies into the back of the net. Goal, USWNT. 1-1.
Moros: “That’s what we said: Set pieces. What a ball, wow.”
Lowery: “Fantastic ball from Lavelle, fantastic header from Horan.”
Moros: “That’s what I was saying about having a body on her. If Horan just runs free, it spells trouble…I don’t think you can zone a player like that, I think you have to man-mark her. You can still have your zone, but you have to pull someone out and physically not let her run.”
Lowery: “If Horan gets to her spot, you’ve already lost, right?”
Moros: “Yeah, bump her. Bump her again. Make her run around you.”
Another look at Lindsey Horan’s goal 👀
— Action Network (@ActionNetworkHQ) July 27, 2023
Lowery: “I always get the sense that for 99% of players, set pieces are the last things they want to work on. It’s the thing that stops them from playing the game and—”
Moros: “It’s boring. It’s super boring…I find them so tedious. But they’re super important.”
Lowery: “What’s Vlatko’s attitude about set pieces?”
Moros: “I wouldn’t say he spent more time on it than other coaches, but he’s always been very involved from my experience. He’s watched a tremendous amount of set pieces, does a lot of calculating of where teams are vulnerable and why…He’s a go-hard kind of guy. He’s all in. The man has no ACLs and he runs around the field, you know what I mean?”
With less than 10 minutes left in the game, Andonovski is yet to make any more changes to his lineup.
Moros: “I would like to see them have confidence bringing somebody else in, but I can’t tell you who I would want to take off the field.”
Even with players starting to gel, chances are few and far between for the United States. In the 82nd minute, though, there’s a glimmer of hope. Morgan heads the ball forward for Sophia Smith, who brings it down and slips a through ball into the path of Trinity Rodman. Unfortunately for the USWNT, Rodman’s shot goes just wide.
Moros: “Come on, that’s good, come on. Ugh…”
Lowery: “That’s a great ball there from Smith.”
Moros: “The U.S. is just so powerful getting in behind the line. There are so many people in this team who can do that…it’s horrifying for the defense. They can start behind the play and still end up behind the defense.”
One of Moros’ last games on staff with Gotham was against Smith and the Portland Thorns in 2021.
Moros: “She’s gotten so much better. She’s always shown signs of what it is she does now, but now it’s that consistency. What she does well shows up every single game against different players, different formations, different tactical adjustments to deal with her. One of the things that happens with experience is you just get the opportunity to play against and play with so many different people. Your decision-making gets faster and it’s more sophisticated…I always liken it to when you start a sentence, I don’t really know what the end of my sentence is going to be. But I’m not afraid to start it, knowing that I have a thought that’s going to come out.”
Lowery: “I love that analogy.”
Moros: “I’m speaking a language and I know I’m proficient at it. And I think the game is a lot like that. If you learn how to speak it, then you start a sentence before you know the outcome. But you already know you’ve got it.”
As the clock ticks on in second-half stoppage time, it becomes clear that the game is destined for a draw. The final whistle blows with the scoreline fixed at 1-1.
Moros: “I think, overall, the U.S. can draw confidence from this game because they didn’t play well at times, but they were dominant at other times…Now, from their performances, we haven’t seen a team that can win the tournament. But the expectation that they would just flip a switch and have it isn’t realistic. If you’re growing towards it, that’s the goal. But I know some people are concerned, when the U.S. isn’t the most dominant team.
“Right now, you’re in a growth period. Times are changing. Identities are shifting. The global game in women’s soccer has changed so much in the last five years alone. So, I see a lot of stuff that I like. They can still get better, but I like it.”
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(Top photo: Getty Images; Design: Eamonn Dalton)