Despite draw, Lindsey Horan and U.S. women hit high notes against Australia
EAST HARTFORD, Conn. -- For anyone without a rooting interest in one of the participants, there is only one takeaway from Sunday's 1-1 draw between the United States and Australia.
If this was a preview of a World Cup meeting to come, perhaps even a final in Lyon, then let's fast- forward 11 months and let these same two teams loose on Europe.
Two days and a year after it beat the United States for the first time on an all-around less entertaining night in Seattle, the Australians nearly did it again Sunday. Bending like a boomerang in flight for much of the night while protecting a 1-0 lead, the Matildas didn't break until the final minutes of second-half injury time. Only when Lindsey Horan headed home Megan Rapinoe's corner kick beyond the 90th minute did the U.S. women avoid almost unheard-of back-to-back losses on home soil to any country. The ensuing celebration was worthy of a bigger tournament than this.
This was physical, relentless soccer between two World Cup contenders. This was fun. And while the United States is defending that title next summer in France, it isn't a stretch to say Australia is the team the Americans want to be by then. Because if the U.S. women, with their talent pool, find the cohesion the Australians have forged over years, look out.
It sounded Sunday night like they thought they took a step toward that in salvaging a point against the Matildas.
"It was just a really good performance," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. "I think we had the better of the game in almost every phase. I think Lindsey Horan, that's the best performance I've ever seen in a national team jersey. I thought she was fantastic tonight. Our front three I thought played well. There were just so many good things.
"We talk a lot about total-team performance, that's how it felt tonight."
Contrast that enthusiastic assessment with recent history against the same opponent. After the 1-0 loss in Seattle a year ago, Ellis said the team was still "trying to put different pieces together, look at different things." It wasn't so much an excuse as a concession.
The lineup a year ago wasn't particularly makeshift, but it also wasn't one that started together before or since. The United States wasn't good enough to win that night -- it still might have salvaged a draw because it had chances, but the loss wasn't a fluke.
At some point in the intervening year, the U.S. women started to shift from looking for those pieces and trying to fit them together to looking for the pieces to keep together between now and the World Cup. They tried to turn the page and begin building toward the World Cup, qualifying included. That hasn't been easy, in no small part because of injuries. Tobin Heath and Rose Lavelle return? Mallory Pugh and Kelley O'Hara go out. Sunday was the first time all year that Becky Sauerbrunn and Abby Dahlkemper started together as center backs. While Tierna Davidson will have something to say about it, that is likely the pairing the United States wants to use next summer.
Australia used eight of the same starters Sunday as it did in the game a year ago. It had more of the same starters from the 2015 World Cup than did the United States. It didn't start almost from scratch after the last World Cup and Olympic cycle. It fared well with youth then, and now reaps the benefits by playing so well and so aggressively as a collective unit.
What is the objective for the Americans? It's to play together as well as the Australians.
At times Sunday, maybe they did.
"It felt good," Sauerbrunn said. "Australia is an amazing team, and they played really well tonight. Defensively we wanted to neutralize [Sam] Kerr because she's been getting in behind a lot in the NWSL and internationally, so we wanted to make sure we kept her in front of us. And offensively, we wanted to play, we wanted to try to outplay them. And I think we had some really good bouts of play tonight."
Much of that came, as usual, from the players who have been at it together for a long time. Starting as a trio for the first time this year, Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe never quite found the finishing touch but created plenty of chances. But it also came from Horan. A year ago, she was one of those pieces in need of a home, subbed off for Carli Lloyd to try and lift the attack. Sunday she looked comfortable in the No. 10 role long before she used her size and strength to get to the header on the pivotal corner kick. Many times she pushed forward with the ball like people have been begging someone other than Lloyd to do for years.
"It was the way the team played that allowed me to do what I do best," Horan said. "We played better than I think we played in a very long time. We were possession-oriented, and we were getting so many chances in the last 20, 30 minutes there. I think that's so cool to see from our team, and [a] different variation of chances and opportunities."
It all sounds a little too rosy for a 1-1 draw on home soil. Maybe the U.S. women had two-thirds of the possession and completed twice as many passes Sunday, but if they're is going to retain the World Cup, don't they need to do better than one goal in 180 minutes against Australia?
Perhaps, but the United States found an ally for its optimism in a somewhat surprising place.
Australian coach Alen Stajcic is not one to worry about false humility when it comes to games. He said at the time that he thought his team outplayed the United States for much of a World Cup loss in 2015. He said his team earned the win a year ago (and it was difficult to argue on either occasion). But aside from lamenting this night that the corner kick that produced the American equalizer should have been a goal kick, along with a few other calls, he offered much the same assessment of the play as everyone on the other side.
"Until the 65th or 70th minute, I thought we controlled the game last year," Stajcic said, noting only Lloyd's insertion changed that flow. "Whereas this year, I thought they dominated larger spells of the game than what we did last year, for sure. I don't think there were too many spells in the game where we controlled the game and dominated territory and possession."
It isn't an embarrassment to draw Australia these days, even at home. Nor is it a slight to say the Americans would do well to play like the Australians by the time next summer arrives.
And if they settled things on the field in Lyon next July? Well, that doesn't sound bad at all.