Cool, calm and collected, Tierna Davidson guides USWNT to SheBelieves Cup title
ORLANDO, Fla. -- A goal in the closing minutes wouldn't have cost the United States the game Wednesday against England, but it would have cost the Americans the championship.
All England needed to clinch the SheBelieves Cup was a draw, and after Ellen White's header caromed off the post in the 87th minute, four white English jerseys surrounded the ball as it bounded in front of a wide-open net. Four white jerseys and one red American jersey that was suddenly solely responsible for protecting a 1-0 lead.
It was a situation that called for the calmest, coolest, most experienced head the U.S. had available.
Well, would you settle for the player with the most recent experience winning a title on the field?
"I felt like I had the entire England team around me. It seemed like just a sea of white jerseys," U.S defender Tierna Davidson said. "But I cleared it out for a corner, which -- I'll take that over a goal any day. But, yeah, it was a little bit of a hectic couple of seconds."
Rather than look to the officials for help with an offside call, as some U.S. players did in the moment, she kept her focus and conceded the corner. The U.S. regrouped and played out the final minutes for the win.
Davidson, who won an NCAA championship with Stanford in Orlando just three months ago, was the youngest player on the field for the United States in the SheBelieves Cup, younger even than still-wunderkind Mallory Pugh. The game against England was just her fourth for the national team, tied for the fewest of any American on the field Wednesday. But in that moment late in the game, she was a revelation in sheer steadiness.
While there was a trophy presentation complete with a stage on the field and confetti in the air, the tournament title that Davidson protected means as much as you want it to mean.
That the 19-year-old college sophomore protected it means quite a bit more.
In three games, the U.S. found someone who makes it better, someone who can help it defend its World Cup title next summer. Even if that person was barely old enough to drive when the U.S. won that World Cup in 2015. Now the Americans just have to find a place on the field for her.
"She just grew in the tournament," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. "I think this was her best performance. She's been so solid, she's so calm. I just told her I'm so incredibly proud of her. To step in at that age, and for her first real time with this team, to be with this kind of level of competition, I think it speaks volumes about her.
"I'm just really excited about where she's headed because she was fantastic tonight."
Davidson was in the lineup for the United States because of an injury that has sidelined co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn. Called in to national-team camp last year as Ellis looked for left-footed options at outside back, Davidson was overwhelmed. Called back in January, after helping Stanford win a title after moving from holding midfielder to center back, she wowed with her size, speed and fitness, and also her composure.
The U.S. missed Samantha Mewis, the midfielder who was ruled out of SheBelieves with an injury. It missed the injured Tobin Heath, if only in shortening the rotation of forwards. It missed Julie Ertz when injury forced her to the sideline after the opening game against Germany. It will welcome back Sauerbrunn, who remains one of the best in the world at what she does. But that's different from saying it suffered without her. Davidson held the fort just fine.
She's been so solid, she's so calm. I just told her I'm so incredibly proud of her. To step in at that age, and for her first real time with this team, to be with this kind of level of competition, I think it speaks volumes about her.USWNT coach Jill Ellis on Tierna Davidson
"They moved her into the center back position, and immediately I feel like she looked like a veteran," Alex Morgan said. "With Becky's injury and not being here for the last couple of camps, I feel like Tierna definitely stepped up and matured incredibly fast. If someone was watching, I don't think they would say she's 19 or 20 years old -- I don't even know how young she is. But she was fantastic for us tonight. She saved a clear goal right off the goal line."
The United States conceded just one goal in three games against the highest-ranked European competition. That statistic might flatter the overall performance -- the weather made goals hard to come by at times and opponents hit their share of posts and crossbars. But the U.S. defended well, especially through Davidson and Abby Dahlkemper in the middle of the back line.
After the opening game against Germany, played in howling wind and rain, Davidson acknowledged the speed of play at the highest international level was unlike anything she had experienced. After 270 minutes in seven days against that speed, she settled in. That's more or less the point of playing SheBelieves for the U.S.
"More like my thinking speeds up but the game slows down," Davidson said. "As in I'm a little bit less nervous and the touches seem to go a little bit smoother and the passes seem to go a little bit sharper. I end up finding that I have more time, so in that sense the game does slow down. But, of course, I have to speed up for the game as well."
It's a nice problem to have, but Ellis will have three players who deserve playing time and just two starting positions for them when Sauerbrunn returns. With World Cup qualifying ahead this fall, and the partnership between Sauerbrunn and Dahlkemper itself still relatively new, there is only so much time for experimentation. One option would be to give Davidson another trial at outside back, a position that remains unsettled for the U.S. on whatever side isn't occupied by Kelley O'Hara.
A midfielder for much of her youth career, Davidson is comfortable on the ball. She even said that for all that she enjoys about center back, leaving the fun stuff in the attacking end to other players is one of the downsides.
"It's obviously interesting to me," Ellis said on the eve of the final. "But going into a World Cup, I always wanted to have a center back that can also play wide. So I think over this next six, seven months, we have time to certainly look at that because, again, she has great qualities -- natural lefty, very calm on the ball, likes to combine. I think she can play wide, for sure, but right now we'll just keep her where she is."
Where she was when it mattered most Wednesday night was right in the middle of crisis, which is fast becoming exactly where you want her.