Latest experiment of U.S. roster leads to 1-0 win over China

SANDY, Utah -- It isn't that difficult to get from here to France. There is a nonstop flight almost every day from the Salt Lake City airport. You can be sipping cafe au lait in Paris in not much more time it might take, with connections, to get to Raleigh. Or Rochester. Or Atlanta.

Or any of the places McCall Zerboni has played on a long and winding path through professional soccer.

It isn't nearly as easy for anyone to get to where Zerboni was Thursday, standing on the field at Rio Tinto Stadium with 10 other players in the starting lineup for the United States. And few of those who ever succeeded took a more arduous route than she did. Nonstop it was not.

Now one of the stars of the National Women's Soccer League with the North Carolina Courage, Zerboni has won professional championships and seen leagues fold around her. She was the oldest player, 30, ever to earn a first cap for the United States when she came on a substitute last fall. On Thursday, she got her first start.

"I'm bursting with pride and honor," Zerboni, now 31, said. "I think a lot about my teammates, my teammates on the Courage, my teammates here. They helped me get here. And then the teammates around me today made me look good.

"I'm just so thankful to be playing with such amazing players, to be able to be in environments where I still get to grow and improve every day and showcase my talents."

Exactly a year to the day that the Women's World Cup begins in France, the United States beat China 1-0. It was a workmanlike win. It felt more like a casting call than a dress rehearsal. But watching Zerboni try to take a first step toward France offered a glimpse at a best-case scenario of what the U.S. team is still trying to accomplish on its own journey: Find the 23 players who can do something to help win the World Cup.

In what is becoming somewhat distressingly the norm, the starting lineup was equal parts talent search and triage. Without Tobin Heath, Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh because of a mix of injuries and workload concerns, the U.S. women commemorated the one-year countdown by starting two players for the first time: Zerboni and Savannah McCaskill.

This wasn't a night to imagine this team on the field in France because it won't be this team.

We won't see McCaskill in the starting lineup if Pugh and Heath are available. We aren't likely to see Becky Sauerbrunn start a game at outside back. That Crystal Dunn is versatile enough to play left and right back, forward and then left back again in the same game is part of the reason she might start in France -- but it's difficult to envision a game that would deploy her like this.

And what of Zerboni? If we're playing the odds, they aren't in her favor, either. She is vying for a role in a midfield that is unsettled, yes, but partly because it has such an array of options. To go from out in the cold to a summer in France is asking a lot -- but perhaps not beyond her reach.

"Coming into this camp, I wanted to give her a really good hard look," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. "I think that what I've seen tonight, yeah, I definitely think McCall is going to be in the hunt and in the mix. It's a very deep position for us, but I like the way she reads the game, controls the game."

Ellis also said she liked the way Zerboni leads, even in her first start, and the energy that comes out both in tackles and encouragement for teammates. A leader from the days when she played for Ellis at UCLA through so many professional leagues and teams, her voice was easy to pick out from almost the moment Thursday's game kicked off. And for a decent chunk of the first half, her energy was just about the only highlight for the United States.

In the 14th minute, Zerboni, in pursuit of the ball in the attacking side of midfield, ran through and over a Chinese player for a foul. She does that sometimes. Yet a minute later, in almost the same spot, she forced a turnover and sent the U.S. off on a rare foray. Still one more minute later, she was clapping and yelling encouragement during a lull in play. It is what NWSL fans have seen her do for years.

She wasn't as visible in the second half, but she might have been even more effective. Playing high alongside Lindsey Horan in the first half, Zerboni played back in a holding midfield role for much of the second half -- one that not coincidentally saw the Americans build better possession.

"I'm able to do both, thankfully," Zerboni said. "So it was nice that we were able to try that and change formations and let some other players come in. At this point, it's playing with each other and figuring each other out, all our strengths and our tendencies on the field and what the best mix is to put our best foot forward and get ourselves ready for the World Cup that's to come.

"We want to start laying a good foundation and figuring out strengths and building from that."

They weren't the words of someone who sounded as if she thought this was a cameo.

Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Midfielder McCall Zerboni, 31, started her first game -- as did teammate Savannah McCaskill -- with the U.S. women's national team Thursday.

Look, this game wasn't a classic. It was in many ways a game best forgotten. China played a conservative, physical game, and the U.S. women, who know they will see plenty of that in qualifying and even beyond, didn't look all that ready to break down that bunker. They won because Megan Rapinoe served a wonderful ball that Alex Morgan headed home in the second half, nothing more complicated than that.

It was at times a mishmash of experimentation. Sauerbrunn started at outside back, then quickly moved inside to her more familiar center back role, with Tierna Davidson shifting from the center to outside back. Dunn moved all over the field. Sofia Huerta got time at outside back. Carli Lloyd came on in the second half as the No. 9, with Morgan sliding over to the left side.

There was a lot going on. Most of it presumably with some purpose, because figuring things out remains part of what Ellis is trying to do. She would surely rather have the ability to put out a wholly first-choice lineup -- Sam Mewis and Julie Ertz at least returned Thursday after absences. But even if the large-scale search for talent came to an end last year, with this year supposed to be about turning the page to qualification and beyond, no doors are closed.

"It would be wrong to say this isn't a developmental environment -- it is," Ellis said in May. "You take a young player like Tierna, she's developed a lot because she's had to play at a pace and level of play that has stretched her. And she's obviously handled it very well. The environment itself promotes growth. ... But at some point it is about performing and getting the job done."

You could say a chance to do that job is all Zerboni ever asked for, except that is some of the only speaking she more or less left to others. She said she never spoke with Ellis about what the coach needed to see to give the standout in the pro league a good look with the national team. She went out and played.

"I just woke up every day and did my job for my club team," Zerboni said. "Try to maximize the player that I am in every capacity that I could."

We're still a long way from knowing what the U.S. roster, let alone the starting 11, will look like when it boards a flight for France next summer, qualification willing this fall. But for now, Zerboni will settle for a flight to Cleveland and the next game against China.

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