USWNT celebrates the past and looks to the future in rout of Belgium
LOS ANGELES -- Never has it been less of a slight to Carli Lloyd to suggest that someone who remains one of the biggest stars in her sport wasn't the main attraction entering Sunday's game between the United States and Belgium. Rarely has so much star power gathered in one place.
But leave it to Lloyd to remind everyone that there are still few more recognizable players.
Well before a halftime ceremony introduced a team that put women's soccer squarely in the national spotlight 20 years ago this summer, before many fans spotted some of Hollywood's biggest stars in attendance for the occasion, another name echoed out from the section of the stands at Banc of California Stadium reserved for the American Outlaws supporters group.
That was after Lloyd headed home her -- and her team's -- second goal of the night to put the U.S. comfortably in front of what turned out to be a 6-0 win against Belgium.
It took her barely more time to score twice than it did nearly four years ago in a World Cup final.
"I'm doing the same thing I've been doing from day one in my career," Lloyd said. "I'm working hard. I'm humble enough to know there's things I can improve on. And I'm not stopping. I've been pretty blunt about that. Those that want to doubt can doubt."
No, the night didn't belong to Lloyd quite the way that afternoon in Vancouver, British Columbia, did in July 2015. This evening in Los Angeles still centered on the halftime ceremony that honored the team that won the 1999 World Cup, most members of which were on hand to bask in a sustained ovation. But Lloyd's outburst, which also included a picture-perfect assist on Alex Morgan's 101st career goal in the second half, was the on-field headline for a night that was all about the U.S. exploring its depth.
"What we got is kind of what we know is Carli," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. "I've said she's a game-changer, whether she's on the pitch or coming into the pitch. That's her role for us."
Playing an opponent outside the top 13 in the world for the first time this year, as well as the first opponent that didn't qualify for the World Cup, Ellis made wholesale changes to her lineup. Regular starting forwards Tobin Heath, Morgan and Megan Rapinoe were all absent at the start, with Rapinoe not available at all after suffering an injury in the previous game. Midfielder Rose Lavelle also was unavailable. Frequent defensive starters Abby Dahlkemper and Emily Sonnett also began on the bench, ultimately turning over half the regular lineup.
The resulting lineup was part experimentation. Crystal Dunn moved from outside back to a midfield role. Tierna Davidson moved from center back to outside back, Julie Ertz from midfield to defense and Lindsey Horan from higher in the midfield to the holding midfield role. And the lineup was part rotation for veterans such as Lloyd and Christen Press, who had three assists.
"It was just looking again at different pairings, making sure we get as many looks as we can," Ellis said. "I think we were trying to give other players opportunities to play and then look at different options -- and even potentially depth, so looking at Horan in the six and Allie Long in the six. It gives us a chance to look for depth."
Even the 1999 team so ingrained in memory didn't march all the way to its title with the same lineup every game, making four changes in its final group game in that tournament. This team will have to play an additional game as compared to that team, seven in all, if it wants to become the first American team to win back-to-back titles.
So, even as people celebrated the past Sunday night, the U.S. looked to the future and what it hopes is necessary depth. That includes one player who still has a penchant for the big stage.
"At the end of the day, I can help this team lift that trophy in France," Lloyd said.
Back-line reunion: Lloyd's place in the starting lineup wasn't the only throwback to the most recent World Cup. For the first time in a long time, the majority of the back line was made up of players who started in those roles four years ago in Canada, with regular starter Becky Sauerbrunn sent out alongside center back Ertz and right back Ali Krieger.
As solid as Ertz is in the role in which she rose to prominence in the 2015 World Cup, her value in midfield these days makes it unlikely Sunday's outing was anything but a refresher course in case of emergency in France. Against teams better than Belgium, ranked 20th in the world and utilizing youth with an eye toward the 2021 Euros, the U.S. needs her energy as a defensive midfielder.
The return of the other familiar face felt like much more like an audition in a town known for them. Krieger hadn't played for the U.S. in almost exactly two years, since a game against Russia on April 6, 2017. The veteran of both the 2011 and 2015 World Cups was left out of the mix as Ellis worked through a variety of younger options at outside back.
"I know that she's worked incredibly hard," Morgan said recently of her teammate with the NWSL's Orlando Pride and now again with the U.S.. "And just playing with her day in and day out, she is like the heart and soul of Orlando. So coming here, I feel like she just brought so much energy and excitement, and the team just welcomed her with open arms."
Before Krieger's start against Belgium, Ellis was asked about what factors would carry most weight in making the final roster decisions. It was a general question, but in pointing to the decision to include veteran Shannon Boxx in 2015, Ellis made what sounded a lot like a case for Krieger this time as someone who is an asset in specific on-field situations but also off the field.
Ellis held back after the game, noting that Krieger had performed well in training but saying she wanted to watch the film before commenting on her performance against Belgium. Popular with fans and teammates, and someone who handled her absence from the national team picture with grace, Krieger figures to be one of the most interesting cases as the final roster takes shape.
Worrying sight: For as many memorable images as there were on Sunday, one worrisome sight was Lavelle making her way off the field with the assistance of crutches. Without specifying the injury, Ellis said Lavelle suffered a "knock" in training the day before the game and was ruled out as a result. It might well just be a case of discretion, with no need to force the issue in a meaningless game. But for a player who both has the potential to be such a dynamic creative player and has a history of lingering injuries, it was a frustrating end to this stretch.