From the sunny Florida beaches to the music venues of Nashville, the last week has been a pretty interesting experience. For the last seven days, we have been travelling around the USA following England in the inaugural #SheBelieves Cup. It was our first time watching football in America and offered a very different experience from the usual Cyprus Cup. Three games in seven days, spanning two states and two time zones, provided a fairly packed schedule. Eventually won by the hosts, the tournament went down to the wire as the USA, Germany, France and England took to the field. Here we look back at the tournament in general and how the Lionesses fared.
The #SheBelieves Cup provided, on paper, some highly anticipated competition with the world’s top three, and fifth placed England, going head-to-head in the World Champions’ backyard. Despite starting slow and having an overall pre-season feel to it, the football increased in quality, ending with the best match of the lot between the USA and Germany.
In terms of garnering interest in sport, there is no place quite like America. They live for their sports teams and women’s football team is no exception. The Americans are certainly some of the most intense, and at times crazy, fans we have ever come across. However, this does not translate quite like it does into football back home. There was a great vibe around the matches – friendly, accepting and accommodating – making the occasion an enjoyable one. The hosts inevitably drew the biggest crowd, with over 20,000 gathering in Nashville’s Nissan Stadium, but there was a decent attendance for the other games.
It was an interesting decision to spread such a small tournament across two states. This meant quite a lot of travel for the teams as well as a time difference (albeit miniscule) to deal with. In terms of location though, the stadiums in Tampa and Nashville were fairly central and easily accessible. These were both NFL stadiums, built for the big occasion. The FAU Stadium in Boca Raton was the exception, being an hour north of Miami, and providing a very poor ground surface.
You can certainly never fault the Americans with doing things by half. Everything is done on a grand scale, from the opera singers somewhat unfortunately murdering every anthem, to the variety of food and drink available. They did, perhaps, take it a little too far, producing a Golden Glove, Golden Ball and Golden Boot award during the trophy ceremony, all of which were won by the USA. Firstly, there were certainly other potential candidates for the either of the first two and, secondly, is that really necessary when each team only plays three times?!
Overall, however, it was a successful event and one that is going to continue for the next few years. One question will be is whether it remains exclusive to the top four or five teams, or whether it will be expanded and opened out to others. It would be an huge shame if it doesn’t and is important for the development of the women’s game on a wider level. Part of the beauty of the Cyprus and Algarve Cups has been enabling the developing women’s football nations to compete with the more advanced in a tournament format other than a major tournament once every couple of years. The danger is that, if only the top teams play each other, the chasm will begin to widen further. This would, in our opinion, be very unhealthy for the women’s game. Obviously, this is not just the responsibility of the #SheBelieves Cup and needs to be a concerted effort across the board.
While not gaining the results they sought, or, on occasion, deserved, England can look back on the tournament in general as another step in the right direction. That is not by any means to say they were perfect – there is still much work to do in certain areas – but the fact that they went toe-to-toe with the world’s best and held their own is a positive. Add in that the players are in pre-season, coming back after almost a three month break, highlights their progress.
Their first game against the USA was one of their best performances, alongside the first half against Germany. They pressed with intensity for almost 75 minutes with Jodie Taylor and Toni Duggan doing a lot of chasing up front. In defence, the combination of Gilly Flaherty and Steph Houghton kept the USA strikers at bay and they didn’t register an effort on target until the second half. They started similarly against Germany and made the most of the pressure through a Duggan headed goal. They tired in the second half, especially in the final quarter, and conceded two unfortunate goals to slip to defeat. In their final game against the French, the first half was their poorest of the tournament and they were lucky not to concede. They noticeably improved in the second half and should have probably had a penalty but earned a draw to finish third. Arguably, England’s best player of the tournament was Jill Scott. One of the three England players to play every minute of every game, she worked tirelessly in midfield and as a target player. She and Duggan showed at times some good understanding that could be honed over time.
On the flip side, areas of improvement include quality of passing and the ability to create more chances. There were times in all three games when the ball was lost needlessly in midfield, inviting pressure on to the back line. A bit more composure on the ball was needed to find the pass out of trouble. The Lionesses also struggled in the final third, partly due to the lack of attacking players on the pitch. I can only remember a handful of chances in both games that England managed to create and the transition from defence into attack will need to improve. In addition, as a pre-season friendly tournament, it was a perfect opportunity to give some younger players and those with less minutes the chance to gain some match experience against the best opposition in the world. It would have been an invaluable experience for the likes of Izzy Christiansen, Gemma Davison and Fran Kirby in a pressure-less environment.
This aside, I think it can be safely said the future looks bright as we start the 2016 season. These performances and experiences certainly set England in good stead as they work towards next year’s European Championships.
The #SheBelieves Cup marked the beginning of the year for the Lionesses. England will continue their European qualifying campaign next month at home to Belgium (8th April) before travelling to Bosnia & Herzegovina (12th April). Both will present different tests that they should, on paper, be able to overcome. In the meantime, the players return to their clubs to begin a new league campaign that starts on the 23rd March. There is a lot to look forward to!