Alex Morgan's milestone goal, USWNT's resiliency key win over Australia
COMMERCE CITY, Colo. -- Four years ago, the United States beat Australia in a game that easily could have gone the other way. It was a win that launched the U.S. on a run ending with a World Cup title.
Megan Rapinoe scored the winner that day. This time, she had help from someone barely old enough to drive four years ago, as Mallory Pugh scored twice in a rollicking 5-3 win against Australia.
How much of the rest of the story repeats itself remains to be seen, but it's a start for the U.S., which finally has a win this year against the kind of team it will need to beat this summer.
Four years ago, the U.S. beat Australia 3-1 in each team's World Cup opener, a game not nearly as lopsided as even that margin suggests. The stakes weren't the same Thursday, the game was a friendly still two months removed from the big tournament in France. But the U.S. surrendered a lead late in the first half, the fourth time in six games this year that an opponent pulled level. And when the Matildas took the lead for themselves in the second half, the impending loss felt almost as dire as dropping points that day in Winnipeg would have felt.
Already beaten by France in January and unable to retain the SheBelieves Cup title after draws against England and Japan, the U.S. continued to talk about the progress it has made beyond the results. Yet somewhere in the buildup to the World Cup, even if it is not all that matters in these games, winning now must also be good practice for winning later.
All the more if it's winning across generations, Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath and Rapinoe scoring the first three goals before Pugh scored the winner just 37 seconds after coming on the field.
The U.S. got itself into trouble, conceding three goals on home soil for just the fourth time under Jill Ellis. Young and old, the Americans also fought their way out of trouble by converting enough of the offensive chances that went unfinished earlier this year.
"First thing I said to the group after the game was character helps you win championships," Ellis said. "We saw a lot of that tonight, in terms of being ahead, being behind, giving up a late goal, getting anxious in the late minutes. ... I think that that's what you have to have in terms of mental determination, resilience, fortitude, whatever you want to call it. I think that was a great takeaway. I'm going to watch the film because there were a lot of things to take away from this game, but I think overall just the mental strength -- that's a good team we just played."
It is what American teams that win World Cups have always done. So it's a start.
Last best test
No, the U.S. won't spend the rest of the spring playing the equivalent of the Washington Generals. But with all due respect to the likes of Belgium, Sunday's opponent and a team that came within a playoff of qualifying for the World Cup, Thursday's game was the last time the U.S. will play a World Cup contender before that tournament begins in June.
The difference in this kind of game was obvious: Australia set on playing out of the back early and undeterred by the early deficit. This was a game between top-tier opponents. Australia coach Ante Milicic commended the Americans' ability to switch seamlessly between looks in the second half, and that mattered because Australia placed the U.S. under the kind of pressure that the opponents still to come in the send-off series simply can't.
"It just shows the experience and the time they've been together," Milicic said.
Morgan gets her milestone
How can 100 career goals be overshadowed? Eight goals in 90 minutes has a way of doing it. Although the following back-and-forth goal binge took center stage, Morgan's opening goal was the product of both good buildup out of the back and some old-fashioned chasing down of the long ball played in by Crystal Dunn.
Now a captain who talks about how she's trying to help guide the younger generation toward its first World Cup, Morgan presumably approved of Pugh stealing a little of her thunder with two late goals to the delight of the fans in Colorado. Only 20, Pugh has a long way to go to get anywhere in the vicinity of 100 goals, but she increasingly looks like someone who will be difficult to keep on the bench this summer -- and mighty valuable if she does remain there.
"That right now is her role, to come in and be a difference-maker," Ellis said. "And those were good goals, those were world-class goals she scored tonight. I think it speaks to the depth that we have. It speaks to her ability to come in and change games and start games. I think we've got a lot of strengths in our attacking group, but Mal is just a really special player."
Back line watch
It was an interesting evening for Emily Sonnett in her continued audition for a starting role on the back line. Even with Kelley O'Hara still the favorite when healthy, Sonnett is almost the incumbent at right back at this point. A starter again Thursday with O'Hara unavailable because of injury, Sonnett has started 11 of the past 22 games for the U.S., three more than O'Hara has in the same span.
Aggressive in the attack early, combining with Heath on the right side in a way more often seen from Rapinoe and Dunn on the opposite side, she set up Heath's goal with a terrific cross and added a second goal with good instinctive play in the box on Pugh's winner. She also found herself isolated at times defensively, including on Australia's opening goal from Lisa De Vanna.
"The challenge in terms of our backs being able to release to that wide area when they overload you central, that's the decision: Can you get out there early enough?" Ellis said. "So I think there were several [one-on-one] matchups she did well with. I think on the [first Australian] goal, that decision to leave your feet and get out there quicker is the confidence to release. But overall I think it's a tremendous game for her to have."
If the U.S. and Australia both win their World Cup groups, they could not meet before the final. But there are some intriguing alternate scenarios. If the Australians finished second in a group that also includes Brazil, there is a chance they could be the semifinal opponent awaiting the winner of the much-discussed potential quarterfinal between the U.S. and host France.