National Soccer Hall of Famer Brandi Chastain became an American sports icon when she scored the game-winning goal in the penalty shootout that delivered the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup to the United States exactly 20 years ago. That moment at the Rose Bowl is one of the most memorable ever created in the American game.
For the current U.S. team to match that performance at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, Chastain told Sporting News the team’s defense will be the key.
“I think our mentality is being in the attack, for sure, but the most important part of this World Cup will be the defending,” Chastain said. “If you look at the teams we’re playing, if we don’t have a good plan, if all of the players don’t understand their responsibilities in the different thirds of the field, if we play in a way that is kind of like ‘all-or-nothing’ defending, we will be opened up in a way these teams can take advantage of a potentially uneasy back line.”
The quartet of left back Crystal Dunn, center backs Becky Sauerbrunn and Abby Dahlkemper and right back Kelley O’Hara has not had the luxury of playing together often of late because of an injury to O’Hara’s ankle that only recently has healed. They started all three games of the recent send-off series, but the opponents – South Africa, New Zealand and Mexico – did not often threaten.
New goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher recorded shutouts in all three games, but in games against France, Japan, England and Australia earlier this year, the U.S. conceded a combined 10 goals.
“Our goalkeeping has been less than it’s been … mediocre,” Chastain told SN. “So there’s a lot of potential problems.”
One of those issues is the challenge of repeating as champion. The U.S. was unable to do it in the World Cup of 1995 or 2003 after the first two titles the American women won.
Chastain was a part of the 2003 team that played at home but was unable to match its brilliance from four years earlier.
“The good thing about these scenarios is that every year, every team is different. It’s not like you’re comparing this team to the last team. You get a fresh start, and I think that’s healthy. It can allow you to let go of some of that pressure. It’s just a standalone event. And that’s what I’m hoping that the sports psychologists and the players have been sharing with the players.
“Winning a World Cup isn’t easy. It’s going to take a lot of commitment, but they’ve been training for that their whole lives. So you take it one game at a time. I think if you think of it too much in the big picture, you lose sight of what’s in front of you.”
Speaking with Sporting News as part of a promotion with Allstate All-America, which will recognize the top high school players in America during MLS All-Star week in July, Chastain had great things to say about what Sauerbrunn, about to begin her third World Cup and second as a starter, adds to the defense.
“I think Becky has shown great leadership. She’s a very calm presence in the back,” Chastain said. “She’s not going to do anything fancy and she won’t make any egregious type of mistake that will get someone into trouble. I think she probably was one of the easiest choices Jill Ellis had to make.”
Chastain seemed uncertain about coach Jill Ellis’ decision to move Julie Ertz, a revelation in central defense in the 2015 World Cup, to play more commonly as a defensive midfielder.
She also wonders not about Dunn’s talent, but about positioning her as a left back. Most of Dunn’s career has been spent in the attack; she won the NWSL’s golden boot award in 2015 by scoring 15 goals. Dunn still gets forward in Ellis’ system, and displayed some brilliant skill in the Mexico friendly, but will she be sound defensively when the biggest games of this World Cup are played?
Ellis declined to include on her roster someone such as Casey Short, a natural left back who has excelled in the NWSL and played for the U.S. in advance of the tournament.
“I’m not saying this because it’s the position I played, but coaching teams myself, working with my husband at Santa Clara with the women’s soccer team … it’s the most difficult position to fill and probably one of the most critical. I’m not sure that we’ve exhausted ourselves to find that right person.
“I think Crystal Dunn is very diverse and multi-talented, without a doubt. But I think the question is a good question, and one that will keep coming up during this World Cup.
“The beauty of a game like soccer is, everyone sees it differently. So we’re going to see what Jill Ellis sees, because it will be on full display.”