Following the massive success achieved by the England team at last summer’s World Cup in Canada, the spotlight has been focused on the Women’s Super League and the progress made by Mark Sampson’s Lionesses.
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On Thursday, England lost 1-0 to the world champions in Tampa, Florida, with the USA relying on a stunning strike from substitute Crystal Dunn to edge past the visitors, who put in a brave performance.
Playing in the She Believes Cup is a great test for Sampson and his team; it will hopefully be an indicator of how far England have come in the last two years, and will also give the country an idea of the quality of the WSL before the season begins in just over two weeks.
19 of the 23 players that travelled to Canada made the travelling squad for the three friendlies, with Jodie Taylor the only non-WSL player in the squad. This is a domestic-heavy squad, which is great for their togetherness, team spirit and development.
Unlike their opponents on Thursday, England don’t get weeks together to prepare. They spent the majority of their time with their clubs in England, so by having seven players each from Manchester City and Chelsea, plus four from Arsenal – and a few that have swapped around over the years – there is still a huge level of understanding between the squad.
England’s improvement was clear to see for the majority of their defeat to the Americans. Starting brightly, the Lionesses pushed and pulled Jill Ellis’ team. Attacking down the left through Demi Stokes, Alex Greenwood, and the hard-working Toni Duggan, there seemed more attacking intent than they showed in Canada and the recent friendly against Germany.
They matched the Americans physically – something you don’t see very often – and limited the chances created by the USWNT. Jordan Nobbs, playing in an unfamiliar role in front of the defence, protected the back four and limited the time and space Carli Lloyd was allowed. USA’s hero from the World Cup final was nullified and became a passenger.
Lucy Bronze was faced with the challenge of stopping the blistering pace of teenage sensation Mallory Pugh, and apart from one or two occasions, the Man City right-back won the contest (perhaps on points). Her ascension to a starter in Sampson’s team has been at the expense of Alex Scott, but you always felt like Lucy was the best player for the job. She is undoubtedly the best full-back in the team at the moment – perhaps in world football.
It was a performance that England should be proud of, but it was not without its faults, as the attacking play died down in the second half. Toni Duggan had a great chance to play a low cross to Jodie Taylor an hour into the game, but the Liverpool-born forward failed to get her head up and pick out her strike partner.
“We’re disappointed – we wanted to come here and get a positive result,” Sampson told the BBC after the game. “Credit to America, they’re world champions for a reason and we’ve been beaten by a wonderful goal.
“It’s disappointing that we switched off for a split second, but there are lots of positives to take.”
Sampson is right; one defensive mistake cost them a result, and one failure going forward could have been the difference. These are the type of situations that come with experience and competition, and the more England face off against the best in the world, the better they will become in these situations.
As the WSL becomes an extremely competitive league, with every game as crucial as the next, the decision making and concentration of all the players will only improve. Just like the league itself, this squad has come so far over the past two years; the progress is clear to see, and as long as the WSL continues to grow and strive, so will Sampson’s Lionesses.
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