The USWNT came out on Thursday night looking more determined that I’ve seen them in a long while. I was away from home for the game, and stuck watching on the ESPN app on my tablet, but even on that tiny screen, I could see a different kind of fire had been lit under the Starting XI’s cleats for this final tournament match.
Maybe it was the familiar opponent.
Maybe it was the feeling that they needed–NEEDED–to finish this home tournament better than they’d done in the 2nd-annual She Believes Cup way back in March.
But whatever it was, the US team was ready for–and capable of–a win.
And win they did.
The Starting XI was perhaps the first clue that the US were determined to win. Featuring Kelley O’Hara at right back, Julie Ertz in the midfield, and starting Press, Rapinoe, and Pugh in the 4-3-3 formation, Jill Ellis put out her strongest starting lineup of the tournament. Game three, fighting for the second-place spot, was no time to experiment and it seems the coach realized that.
The game opened at breakneck speed, with Christen Press taking the ball into the Japanese box in the first 30 seconds. The drive didn’t result in a goal, but it set the tempo and gave the fans there in the stands a preview of what to expect from the game. The game was end-to-end, as Japan pressured high and chased US defenders around their own end, looking for an opening to intercept a pass and make a play at Alyssa Naeher in the net, but it was Megan Rapinoe who broke open the scoring in the 15′, with a brilliant run into the box to receive a perfect pass from Press, a slight juke to throw off both the defender and the goalkeeper, and sent the ball into the Japanese goal. The goal was beautiful, but don’t forget, that was the third time Rapinoe had thrown herself forward with the ball–she was on a mission to score, and try, try, try again, she succeeded. In perfect Rapinoe fashion.
SHEESH. @mPinoe put em on ⛸s.
— U.S. Soccer WNT (@ussoccer_wnt) August 4, 2017
The high-tempo of the game couldn’t be sustained, however. And eventually, the game settled into a more sedate pace. That change came, however, after Kelley O’Hara’s exit in the 30′ minute. Sustaining (or re-aggravating) a groin injury, O’Hara went to her knees untouched by the Japanese opponents, prompting the trainers to come out immediately. Earning her 99th cap, O’Hara’s speed on the right was what allowed Press (and the other forwards) to drive so dangerously into Japanese territory. In the minutes before she went down, she made several impressive runs halfway across the length of the field to shut down an attempt by Japan to even the scoreline. Once she was out, and Taylor Smith subbed in for her third cap, the entire game slowed down, as Smith, while doing a great job to protect the US’s right-flank, lacks O’Hara’s combination of speed, experience, and creativity in the position. Don’t get me wrong, though, Smith got some great experience across the tournament as a whole, and has certainly earned another call-up for the next set of games.
Once O’Hara was off the field, the rest of the game was a little more sedate. The Japanese almost equalized after the restart, but Julie Ertz made a fabulous goal-line save, picking up a knock as she slid into the goalpost, but denying the Japanese the chance to score. Honestly, that was probably the best look the Japanese team had at goal the entire game, with Naeher off her line and stranded in the box with nothing but space and the goal behind her. But Naeher was on her game the whole night, making several impressive saves to keep the US in front.
Mallory Pugh doubled the lead in the 60′ off a beautiful cross from Taylor Smith, who later played a similar role in the game-deciding goal. Allie Long had come in for Ertz just a few minutes before in the 54′, and Long took her place in the midfield, the second of the US’ six substitutions. Four more US substitutions followed soon after the second goal, with Horan in for Lloyd in the 65′, and the entire forward corps subbed out in the 73′, with Morgan in for Press, Leroux for Rapinoe, and Williams for Pugh. The fresh legs seemed to spark the US attack again, and just five minutes later, Taylor Smith again assisted with a cross collected and sent into goal by Alex Morgan. The goal came off a slight deflection from a Japanese defender, and sealed the victory for the US. Sydney Leroux tried to notch one late in the match, just before stoppage time, but her direct shot was denied by the goalkeeper. But the way Leroux looks on the ball, now back from her maternity leave, I fully expect her to notch a few goals the next time she’s called up.
The USWNT needed this win, both to demonstrate to their opponents across the globe that they are #1 for a reason, and plan to stay there at the top. But also to remind themselves of the kind of team they have been and can be. There’s been a lot of experimentation, for better or for worse, and there seems to be some locker room anxiety about the future of the team. But this game showed the players, and the rest of us, that the US–when set free to play–isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.