USWNT has rosy outlook despite stunning loss to England
HARRISON, N.J. -- At least Rose Lavelle won't have any trouble remembering the first time she played for the United States women's national team. Even if she keeps on doing so for the next two decades, which is about how long it would take to be the next Christie Rampone.
Saturday was the night the national team bid a final farewell to Rampone. The former captain was honored on the field for all she did while playing the second-most games in international soccer history.
It was also the night the U.S. lost to England 1-0, the national team's first loss on home soil since Dec. 16, 2015. Given that the U.S., on that night in 2015 in New Orleans, was less interested in playing China than in trying to get Abby Wambach a goal in her final appearance, it was the team's first home loss in a game the Americans focused even a little on winning since a defeat against Denmark in 2004.
And it was the night Lavelle, a 21-year-old midfielder who started and played all 90 minutes, temporarily lost feeling in her hands as frigid wind chills dipped into single digits.
But on a night that began by saying goodbye to the past, and a night when England's Ellen White made the present painful with an 89th-minute goal, Lavelle's fantastic debut at least offered encouragement for the future the team keeps talking about building toward.
"The thing that really stood out to me was her being brave," veteran midfielder Tobin Heath said of Lavelle. "I actually remember watching her in the [under-20 World Cup], and I thought the same thing about her. Compared to other players that were on the field, she really stood out to me then. I feel like she came out and she looked comfortable out there, which is a really good sign for somebody in their first cap."
A scoreless draw wouldn't have been much consolation for what was announced as a sellout crowd of 25,600 and didn't look many people short of that despite the weather. It would have been better than the quiet that fell over the stadium in the 89th minute.
While the teams finished with equal shots, the United States looked the more likely to score throughout the second half. But a moment of defensive miscommunication cost the U.S. a corner kick in the 88th minute. The Americans then missed an opportunity to clear the ball out of trouble from that corner and instead conceded a second. England's Lucy Bronze hit the top of the goal frame with a volley from the top of the 18-yard box from the second corner, and White slipped between Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston to score the rebound.
In the blink of an eye, and deservedly earned, England had a win coach Mark Sampson called the best result of a coaching tenure that also includes wins in a World Cup quarterfinal and in that tournament's third-place game against European power Germany.
"Sometimes when you're a perfectionist, you focus too much on what you can do better and not what you do well," Sampson said. "You can only build belief so far until you get a big result. ... I genuinely feel we're scratching the surface. It's taken us two years to get a platform, to build some foundations. But now we're starting to scratch that surface. We had to get a big result."
And so it was U.S. coach Jill Ellis, after just her second loss in the past two calendar years, left to answer questions about what her team can do better.
"What I know now is when we dissect that goal," Ellis said. "And we see we had chances to get out on the first one [and] we didn't get to the second ball, those are the things that players take away, in terms of just how important that is in big games.
"So would I rather learn those lessons now? For sure."
Without giving the U.S. a pass for the loss, because it has earned by its own success the expectation of a win every time it takes the field, therein is the difference. An emerging elite team with a major tournament ahead this summer, England wanted a result first and foremost. How England came by it was of secondary concern in the moment. For the United States, process was the priority, the result secondary.
Lavelle played well enough that it could have produced a result (she lamented a first-half shot she put just over the crossbar). More important was that she played how the U.S. wants to play.
"That is a phenomenal answer I got tonight, Rose Lavelle," Ellis said. "She was fantastic."
The first overall pick in the recent National Women's Soccer League draft by the Boston Breakers, Lavelle was a college standout at the University of Wisconsin. But in both the Big Ten and with the U.S. youth national teams, she was primarily a central midfielder. She had that role briefly Saturday, after Carli Lloyd left the game in the second half, but for most of the night, Lavelle was asked to hug the sideline on the left flank and attack from there.
Her first touch of the game was a nervous giveaway. She used her second to nutmeg a defender. She never looked back, moving around and through the defense with ease.
"Definitely the first couple of touches I was nervous, but then the adrenaline starts going," Lavelle said. "I'm used to being in the middle, so being on the flank was a little bit different for me. But I feel like I got my groove as the game went on."
Lavelle was in camp with the United States at the end of 2016 but didn't play in any of the team's games. She has long been on the radar for Ellis as one of the players to whom she most wanted to give a trial, but from college commitments to minor injuries, events always intervened. Ellis likes to talk about investing in players, finding those who are worth an investment that will pay off in the 2019 World Cup or 2020 Olympics. A lot of people would buy stock in Lavelle right now.
"I've always known Rose is such a good technical player -- I love playing with her, especially with the U20s," said U.S. midfielder Lindsey Horan. "But this level is completely different. But this camp and last camp, she's stepped in and she's done amazing. Physically I think she's a lot stronger, and then her technical ability is still there. She really shone tonight."
I've always known Rose is such a good technical player -- I love playing with her.Lindsey Horan, on teammate Rose Lavelle
Horan helped her own cause with a good performance Saturday. So did Samantha Mewis for the second game in a row. Largely out of the defensive picture since the Olympics, Julie Johnston showed some of the recovery and tackling ability that made her such a sensation in the 2015 World Cup. Across the field, the U.S. had plenty of performances that should be encouraging for the long-term view, even if many of those same players also made mistakes or missed chances that played a part in the defeat at Red Bull Arena.
"At the end of the day, this is a game that is going to stay with them," Ellis said. "And hopefully it's a springboard for a further commitment for us getting better. I thought there were a lot of good things in terms of, sometimes, our play and how we played through them. I thought we still stayed committed to what we're doing."
Which is about opportunities to let people like Lavelle get to work on their own legacies.
France and Germany played to a 0-0 draw in the first game of the day. The Germans started a much different lineup, both from the opening game against the Americans on Wednesday and last summer's Olympics, but controlled play in the second half after bringing on a number of regulars. German stars Dzsenifer Marozsan and Anja Mittag had the best chances in the run of play in quick succession in the second half. Marozsan's chip from 35 yards beat French keeper Sarah Bouhaddi but thudded off the frame of goal, and Mittag missed on a rebound opportunity. Bouhaddi also saved a penalty kick, caused by a foul she committed, in the first half.
The round-robin tournament concludes Tuesday in Washington, D.C., when Germany plays England and the United States plays France, the current leader with four points.