Australia earns historic win over U.S. women, who struggle in Tournament of Nations opener
SEATTLE -- It seemed a bit of a bland name, this Tournament of Nations. It felt obvious, one step better than calling it the tournament of teams. It felt far more fitting by the end of the night.
By the time the final whistle blew on Australia's 1-0 win against the United States, the first victory for the Matildas in 28 meetings between the teams secured when Tameka Butt slipped the ball past goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher in the 67th minute, the name felt downright eloquent.
This is a tournament of nations. These days, there are far more nations that matter in women's soccer. And far more of them are capable of beating the United States than ever before.
Like Brazil and Japan, the other teams in the tournament, Australia is now on that list -- which is both why the United States is trying to remake itself and why that is proving so difficult.
"I think any team in the top 10 or 12 of women's football can all beat each other now," Australia coach Alen Stajcic said after his team, ranked seventh in the world, proved just that.
Just as England and France proved on American soil earlier this year in the SheBelieves Cup.
This is, believe it or not, what U.S. coach Jill Ellis wanted out of this year. Well, not the third loss by shutout, but the competition. The year after the Olympics used to be a quiet one for the U.S. women, no major tournaments or qualifying events to worry about. Four years ago, for example, they barely took the field during the summer. They certainly didn't play three top-10 opponents in eight days. But Ellis said here in Seattle this week that it was important not to fall behind as other teams benefited from the competition of the European Championship now being played in the Netherlands.
So the Tournament of Nations was added to a schedule that already included the SheBelieves Cup and a trip to Europe to play Norway and Sweden. The objective wasn't to win 2017 but to be better prepared to win in 2019 when the next World Cup rolls around.
"It's a big ask, especially for where we are, in terms of we're a team in transition," Ellis said the day before the loss. "But there is no better way to get ready for qualifying than to play these teams. You just learn so much about yourself. We knew we were going to be a younger team. To play the top nine teams in the world in one calendar year, yeah, it's pretty good."
That was why Crystal Dunn, Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan began Thursday's game healthy but on the bench. Why the back line featured one player making her debut in Taylor Smith and another earning her fifth cap in Abby Dahlkemper. It was why Lindsey Horan started alongside Christen Press as a forward, a role Horan has played elsewhere but not with the national team.
What will worry, disappoint, frustrate or infuriate many is that the U.S. women again generally failed to threaten the goal until those familiar faces entered as second-half substitutes. Until the game necessitated throwing caution to the wind and attacking with numbers. The idea of a process might not worry most, but the perception of a lack of progress will.
The United States had a lot of possession in the opening 20 minutes and some near chances, most often through the work of Megan Rapinoe. Playing in her professional home, where she is in the midst of a sensational NWSL season for the Seattle Reign, Rapinoe played all 90 minutes and looked indispensable. That, too, is part of the process when it comes to a player coming off another knee injury. But the initial surge abated and the United States, all too familiarly, left vast swaths of midfield unclaimed. Press and Horan were left isolated. Australia's pressure pinned back Smith and Casey Short, the Americans' starting outside backs. The Australians didn't let the Americans play, and the attack bogged down.
"We talk about it and we work on it," Rapinoe said. "In the game it's tough when you're under the pump. I think we just need a little bit quicker thinking from everybody; that's quicker in movement, quicker decision-making, and have those options around the ball for teams that press like that. It's kind of hurried in the beginning, but once you break that initial pressure you can get out and run on them.
"But I think we struggled to find that release ball today, and I think that really hurt us."
There were few better examples of that than Horan. The 23-year-old, the fourth-most-senior player in the starting lineup, nearly played in Press for a goal in the first half and nearly had several memorable moments. Instead, Horan left the game midway through the second half after, although not directly as a result of, what looked like a painful head-to-head collision. This developmental phase for the United States is designed for players like Horan, who is clearly talented and excelled with French giant Paris Saint-Germain after skipping college. But from an experiment deep in the midfield to a higher role to the forward role she now occupies as essentially Lloyd's understudy, it has not been a smooth ascendency. It has been a struggle, just like Thursday night.
"It was difficult," Horan said. "Australia is a great team, and they came out and they were pressing us. Any time we would have back to goal, getting the ball into them, they would be right up on us. It was difficult to get out of pressure at points. I think a lot of the time we did find the weak side and try to get out. In the second half, we got a lot more chances off of it, so that was great as a team. Unfortunately we didn't get the goal, didn't get the win."
Dunn, Lloyd and Morgan all had chances to level the score after they came on in the second half, Lloyd denied by a brilliant save from goalkeeper Lydia Williams on a ripped shot from distance that looked bound for goal. But Australia, with seven starters who also started against the United States in the World Cup two years ago and some new faces mixed in, wasn't spooked by the close calls.
"The growth of the women's game, it's very steep," U.S. co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn said. "You're seeing excellent soccer from a lot of countries. Watching Euros, you are seeing teams like Austria play some really quality football. It's exciting -- obviously we want to stay at the top of that group, but it's definitely hard."
Australia became the 16th country to beat the U.S. women, but it was an overdue formality in many ways. The Matildas surprised Brazil in the 2015 World Cup, could have (maybe should have) derailed Germany in the Olympics a year ago, and have been good enough to beat the United States on any given day for several years. But for some fantastic Hope Solo saves and Rapinoe's virtuoso performance, the Australians might have done that in the opening game of the World Cup two years ago.
The 3-1 final score that day was a less accurate reflection of the proceedings than the score Thursday.
"I think there's been a lot of fear over the years," Stajcic said. "But look, I think we busted that myth at the World Cup, to be honest. Even though we didn't win that game, the players got a lot of belief out of that game. Especially in the first half that day, we walked off knowing we were the better team that half. ...
"I think that day was really a turning point for the team, and today was probably the result."
That result was a reminder of why Ellis believes so much in what she is doing in trying to make the United States deeper, younger and better. But it also was a performance that won't silence doubts about the progress of that process.