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Thorns re-entry: The Matildas

Caitlin Foord, Ellie Carpenter and Hayley Raso will be coming home early from France. Where did it all go wrong for the team that looked on top of the world in 2017?

Norway v Australia: Round Of 16 - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images

After their loss on penalties to Norway sent them out of the tournament, sixth-ranked Australia found themselves headed home unexpectedly early. It’s a disappointing showing from a team many picked as an ascendant force in world soccer after their famous victory over the USWNT in 2017 and one that has the best player in the world in Sam Kerr.

The Matildas have had well-publicized issues in defense, but most surprising this tournament has been their inability to generate offense against teams at their own level. Outside of a lopsided win against Jamaica, the only goals the team scored in open play were a Caitlin Foord tap-in that Brazil’s defense made an obvious error in failing to clear and a long shot from Chloe Logarzo in the same game that went through an entire defense without getting touched.

This defeat, when expectations were so high, will have lasting consequences for the Football Federation of Australia and the decision making process around tactics, how they manage their players and what their developmental pipeline should look like. That all is a topic for another day, and it falls to us instead to examine how the Thorns performed within what was overall a disappointing showing.

Norway v Australia: Round Of 16 - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images

Caitlin Foord has been a consistent starter on the front line for the Matildas alongside Sam Kerr in the lead up and at this tournament and made important contributions:. Her tap-in goal against Brazil ended up being essential to the comeback from two goals down, but this would go down as her only mark on the box score in the whole World Cup.

Foord actually started the tournament playing as a number 10 in Australia’s opening 2-1 loss to Italy. She ended up not really getting a chance to show her potential value there as Italy would go on to snuff out Australia’s midfield. Foord would only attempt 22 passes over the course of the entire game and create just one chance.

The forward had some nice moments at this Cup: her through ball to Kerr in the first minute of the game against Norway should have resulted in a goal, and she got to show off her range of distribution, hitting crossfield passes on a dime when the situation called for a switch. She largely struggled to produce consistent offense however, getting few opportunities to run at opposing backlines as the Matildas attacks mostly devolved into aimless crossing.

It’s hard not to feel like the Matildas wasted Foord’s talent this tournament. Her greatest qualities have consistently involved her getting the ball at her feet, and making her scrap for second balls with taller defenders or go up for crosses repeatedly seems like a poor use of resources.

Jamaica v Australia: Group C - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images

Ellie Carpenter made her first ever World Cup appearance for the Matildas this time around, and she didn’t look remotely awed by the occasion. Over the course of the two years since she first established herself as firmly in the rotation, she’s become undroppable for her country. It’s not just that the team needs her for defending: against well organized defenses sitting in two banks of four, she’s frequently in charge of initiating the offense. At times, Australia’s best attacking movement came from her.

When Australia played out of the back at this tournament, either Emily Van Egmond or Carpenter would typically receive the first pass out of the backline. Carpenter’s work down the right was highly productive for her team, working them down the field with the ball at her feet and moving intelligently off the ball to open up space. Her touch let her down a few times when doing this, but it was only due to the fact that the team was going to her so often that it was so visible.

Once into position her crossing wasn’t bad, but most often she was having to cross against set defenses, which are pretty low percentage times to cross the ball. She didn’t have too many opportunities to break the final line of defense or to send an early cross behind a defense as opposing teams figured out pretty quickly that the Matildas couldn’t break down teams sitting deep. This was most obvious in the first game against Italy, where she attempted six crosses for the whole game and completed only one.

The expectations on Carpenter to produce at a high level in defense and in attack in the future will be even greater in the future. She’s surely cognizant of this, and after having such a prominent role in her team, she’ll be driven to hit even higher levels the next time around.

Norway v Australia: Round Of 16 - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Hayley Raso also made her World Cup debut at this tournament (after making the squad in 2015 but playing no games) and also looked right at home. The fact that Raso was starting an elimination game at all despite missing so much time in the build-up to this tournament may have been a warning sign that this team wasn’t as deep as everyone thought. She’s not inexperienced: 38 caps for her country and significant amounts of time with the squad during their wild ride to the upper echelons of the FIFA World Rankings has made her very familiar with competitiveness at a high level.

Despite how essential Raso has been to this group and the important edge she’s brought, in this team’s best incarnations two years ago, she was coming off the bench. Kyah Simon, who has missed the past few years with recurring injuries, was an important member of the Matildas in recent years and was a late cut from the World Cup squad. Raso is new to a starting position.

If anyone had any concerns, though, she had answers, and she was essential to Australia’s World Cup chances. Raso’s energy up top brings a whole different edge to the Matildas than they’ve had in recent years. When she drives at defenders with the ball at her feet, a skill she’s significantly improved on in recent years, she has the capacity to unsettle defenses in a way few other Matildas can. The short term issue is what happens when she gets herself into good position. Her crossing isn’t bad, but her shooting still isn’t the greatest. She had a few big opportunities early in the Norway game after playing a one-two with Sam Kerr but couldn’t get a decent shot away.

Raso is getting back into a situation at the Thorns where Midge Purce has emerged as a serious challenger to her spot on the right wing with her impressive production during this World Cup season. With Kyah Simon appearing to come back from injury and young talent waiting for their shot, Raso has challengers at club and country level. It’s on her to keep improving and finding new skills if she wants to come on top in both spots.