Tough Match With Brazil Was Exactly What U.S. Women Needed In March To Rio

SEATTLE -- When Carli Lloyd found the necessary energy after more than 80 minutes of work to make one more run into the box, force her way in front of a defender one more time, stretch to connect with a cross and slam the ball off the crossbar and back down over the line, the resulting roar from the crowd confirmed that the United States had the result it needed to avoid making history.

But truth be told, it already had the game it needed to begin making its future.

While it has been easy to forget in recent months, tempting even to willfully ignore in the afterglow of a long-awaited world championship, the U.S. women can lose games like this.

They can lose games like this anywhere, even here. They almost did Wednesday. That's not a bad thing.

Unbeaten in its previous 100 games on home soil, a streak more than a decade old and untested since the end of the World Cup, the United States used an 85th-minute goal from Lloyd to salvage a 1-1 draw against Brazil in a game in which the world champions trailed for the first time since March.

Yet the U.S. women got more out of this draw than they did out of the combined first four wins of their victory tour -- two routs each of the overmatched Costa Rica and Haiti. They learned more about themselves in this draw than they did even in the World Cup final against Japan. That had nothing to do with tying Brazil, the biggest disappointment in the World Cup. It had everything to do with playing a game they could have lost.

"I think it's a good quality to play," Lloyd said. "Brazil is obviously taking this year very seriously with the Olympics in Rio. It's good. I mean, these are the games we want to be tested. These are the games where it's going to show what we need to work on, which is good.

"We're going to have to be better than we were at the World Cup, going into Olympic qualifying and going into the Olympics. So it's a good thing. I think it's great to say we've got more room for improvement, each and every one of us. These are the games we want to play."

These are the games you want to play as often as you can to get ready for the next tournament. It took fewer than three minutes to be reminded why.

A night earlier, alone under the lights long after the crowd that came to watch the United States go through its training had exited, Brazil worked over and over again on playing the ball wide, stretching out the opposing back line and then launching long diagonal passes into the resulting open space around the opponent's 18-yard box. Proving that practice makes perfect, or at least good enough, Brazil earned a corner kick in the third minute of the next day's game when just such a pass found Marta.

On the ensuing corner, Brazil's Monica wedged herself into position on Becky Sauerbrunn's shoulder on the near-post side of goal, rose to meet the ball and headed it in at the far post. For the first time since a game against Norway in the Algarve Cup, the United States trailed.

Costa Rica and Haiti could practice all they wanted (although the sad truth is that neither gets the opportunity to do so). It didn't matter. They didn't have the talent to beat the U.S. women, only to share the field and hope against hope that the Americans did something to beat themselves.

In Wednesday's game, the United States could measure itself against its opponent.

"I thought we got better in the second half," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. "I thought we created a lot more chances in the second half, we got stronger. But for me, I wasn't disappointed in our first-half performance. I thought there were a lot of good things. The timing was off a little bit, obviously, with a lot of the calls, a lot of the runs, but in terms of having a good team to play against, I was pretty pleased with our output."

If the result was all that mattered, Shannon Boxx wouldn't have started this game, her final one with the national team. She certainly wouldn't have then come off as a substitute late in the first half, a move made not for tactical considerations but to allow the crowd to salute her one more time and to allow her teammates and coaches -- Ellis first in line -- to embrace her as the game resumed.

Nor did Ellis replace Boxx with Tobin Heath because that was the best matchup to keep the Brazilians at bay. One of the biggest questions facing the United States between now and the Olympics is what happens in the midfield with the imminent retirement of Lauren Holiday. Wednesday, the two deeper-set midfielders, whether that pair was Boxx and Morgan Brian or Brian and Heath, were too often separated from Lloyd, Crystal Dunn and Megan Rapinoe ahead of them.

The Brazil game was the means by which Ellis begins to find that answer, and she said the search for a replacement includes both current members of the roster and outsiders like National Women's Soccer League Rookie of the Year Danielle Colaprico.

"I think Tobin solves pressure very well, [is] comfortable on the ball," Ellis said. "Tobin is a fierce competitor in there as well; she'll get stuck in. ...

"Listen, I know what she can do wide. She's been tremendous wide. I want to look at her in there. She's got good vision. ... She didn't get a whole lot of the ball, but distribution -- when we play her in there, she's good at finding good outlets."

Heath is also, the coach added, still very much in the mix to play in more familiar territory wide.

Had the United States been chasing a result, Ellis wouldn't have used her first two substitutions of the second half to bring on Samantha Mewis and Jaelene Hinkle with 19 minutes to play, the latter stepping on the field for the first time with the national team.

"Getting my first cap tonight was unexpected," Hinkle admitted.

Seconds after checking in, she was pressed into action in her own final third. At this time a year ago, she was playing Big 12 games for Texas Tech. Two months ago, she was playing NWSL games for the Western New York Flash. Here she was on the field in front of more than 23,000 fans against one of the world's elite teams, with arguably the planet's best-ever female player a few yards away looking for the goal that could put the game away.

Hinkle held her own. And then some. She made tackles and connected passes, including one to Alex Morgan that led to the sequence that set up Lloyd's goal. She looked the part.

Even what was familiar was new. Ellis said she wanted to make sure Lloyd and Morgan got 90 minutes together on the field. That seems an odd consideration for players with more than 300 caps between them, including a whole lot of minutes during the World Cup, but there, too, the team is a work in progress. With Lloyd playing now almost exclusively in a high position tucked behind Morgan, the lone forward, it is a new dynamic and a new partnership.

After taking the aforementioned pass from Hinkle, it was Morgan who played the ball into Lloyd's run, setting up a back heel to Rapinoe in a sequence that ultimately culminated with a cross from Meghan Klingenberg.

"I think it's kind of just adjusting to each other and making sure that we're close to each other, but also that Carli is still linking to the midfield," Morgan said. "So it's definitely a process. It's something I hope we continue to get better at."

The United States will continue to do all these things in games to come, with two each against China and Trinidad and Tobago in December before World Cup qualifying starts in February. But they only get one more chance to do so in a game like this. That matters more than the result in Sunday's rematch against Brazil in Orlando.

The U.S. women staved off history at the last gasp. That just wasn't the most important thing they did.