Even in limited minutes, Morgan Brian's return might be biggest boost for U.S. women

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- The most welcome sight in Kansas City on Friday, where the heat index again soared early into triple digits, was the setting sun.

Dusk didn't offer all that much in the way of relief, but it was welcome all the same.

The second-most welcome sight was U.S. midfielder Morgan Brian waiting under the night sky for her turn to take the field during the second half of a 4-0 win against Costa Rica.

She didn't play long in returning from a series of hamstring injuries, or add to the team's array of highlights, but it was welcome all the same.

That's not meant to take anything away from Crystal Dunn and Meghan Klingenberg, who combined on the first goal (or the combination of Dunn, Klingenberg, Lindsey Horan and Alex Morgan, if you zoom out beyond just the box score stats on a well-worked buildup). That marked the earliest goal for the Americans since February, a welcome return to early command.

It isn't to take anything away from Mallory Pugh, the 18-year-old wunderkind who emerged from a pack of defenders and raced down the left side on a long solo run for the second goal. Pugh remains a revelation, someone who is worth watching every moment on the field.

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Morgan Brian, shown here in a June 2 friendly, has been hampered by an MCL sprain and then a series of hamstring injuries.

Nor from Carli Lloyd, whose header in the final seconds of the first half marked her first goal since the knee injury in April that kept her off the field for more than two months and who played all 90 minutes in the heat without complaint or issue.

To single out Brian's uneventful cameo isn't to take anything away from any of the starters for the United States, a group that looked far more active and menacing than in a humdrum win two weeks ago against a South African team of similar capabilities, or Christen Press, who came on as a second-half substitute and closed the night's scoring with a powerful finish. 

The relevance of send-off success aside -- and this is the point at which it's duly noted that the United States registered only a 0-0 draw against South Korea in its final game before the World Cup -- it was a good way to close the pre-Olympic portion of the schedule.

"The last game we played, against South Africa, it was slow, it was just so not like us," Dunn said. "And I think going into this game, we were super focused. We wanted to leave a lasting impression to our fans who are here to support us."

But in terms of what comes next, beginning with a group stage game against New Zealand on Aug. 3 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, nothing mattered more Friday night than Brian's brief time on the field. Winter in the Southern Hemisphere will offer cooler temperatures than summer in the American Midwest, but the U.S. women will soon feel the kind of tactical heat that only their midfield can alleviate.

A midfield that has a distinctly different look than the one that won the World Cup.

"I think the midfield is so crucial to this team, it's the heart of the game," Brian said of the group as a whole. "If we're playing well, then our team is playing well, which is something we have to continue to do and continue to control the midfield."

It needs her to do it.

If last year was a test of belief in her ability, one she aced, this year is a test of her belief in her own body.

In the space of about a year, Brian has gone from untested as the youngest player on the World Cup roster, to a figure of continuity. Consider that there is every chance Lloyd will be the only player positioned in front of the back line to start the Olympic opener after doing the same in the World Cup opener against Australia. Part of that is because Morgan was still working her way back from injury, but the United States will most likely feature major tournament rookies on the wings, Dunn and Pugh, and in the box-to-box midfield role, Horan.

"Right now, I feel Lindsey Horan is better suited to playing an eight," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. "She likes to get forward, she's dangerous."

That leaves the No. 6 role, the conductor, which is exactly where the United States found itself a year ago when Brian's emergence midway through the World Cup changed everything.

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In her first start since a knee injury in April, Carli Lloyd scored on a header shortly before halftime. She played all 90 minutes.

Allie Long played well again Friday and continues to make the most of her late opportunity. The U.S. women can play big games with her there. They can play with other alignments, even pushing Lloyd back if needed. But their best option is with Brian there.

As she did a year ago, all of the other pieces fit together better if she's there.

No tournament effort is ever going to go seamlessly. Winning a title is partly about scoring more goals than the other teams in Brazil, but it's also about managing everything that happens before the games even begin.

The weather in Kansas City this week didn't help, the usefulness of a game balanced against the caution required in managing punishing conditions for both the game and practice sessions.

The calendar this year didn't help. Instead of an early summer tournament, like the World Cup a year ago, U.S. players already have more league miles on their legs. Even the NWSL didn't help. Not when its schedule had Portland and its sizable national team contingent accumulating tens of thousands of air miles in a schedule front-loaded with taxing road trips.

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Christen Press, a second-half substitute, scored the last goal in Friday's 4-0 victory.

There will always be hurdles to overcome, but the United States needs Brian to clear the one now in front of her.

For all her success in soccer, and for all the body parts that have been bruised, sore and stressed along the way, what she experienced this year was new. Following an MCL sprain, she pulled her right hamstring in March and then more recently tweaked her left hamstring.

Thursday's light training session was her first for the national team in more than a month.

And the countdown clock to Rio doesn't make it any easier for her to heal.

"There is always a stress factor," Brian said. "You're against time with an injury sometimes, but mentally, you can't really do anything about your body. You have to let it heal. That's what we need is time."

Her time on the field Friday was mostly uneventful. The closest she came to being part of the fun came after her pass into traffic caromed off Costa Rican players and bounced fortuitously to the feet of Long. The latter then calmly played in Press for the final goal. But if there was rust in Brian's pass, perhaps more telling was the moment just before when she stretched out to corral a pass from Tobin Heath (whose own return from injury on the night was no small matter itself).

In that moment, a ball almost out of her reach, she had to trust the legs that have let her down or that she asked to do too much too soon.

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Crystal Dunn, left, opened the scoring in the 15th minute.

She is healthy enough to practice and play. But trusting her body is its own challenge.

"Sometimes it's trial and error," Brian said. "I think a lot of athletes learn their body as they go. You learn from your mistakes. For me, I'd never pulled a muscle until this year. It's going to happen as an athlete; you can't be healthy all the time. The right [hamstring], that was the first time going through the process, so I think I learned a lot from that. As you get injured, you learn from your body a lot more.

"And I'm still a young player. A lot of these girls that are older have learned a lot through their years of experience. I think that's something I've learned a lot this year, is about my body."

This was a start, if not a game started.

"She was a little rusty tonight," Ellis said. "But [it's now about] getting her some minutes in training, more and more and build her for the first game."

The U.S. women can hope they play in Brazil with the same energy and menace they did for much of the night Friday against Costa Rica.

More important, they can hope to begin that tournament with a player who finished Friday on the field.

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