Despite Not Looking Its Sharpest, U.S. Continues To Win Games

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Talk to players and staff around the French women's national team about the entertaining and aesthetically pleasing way they so often play the game and they tend to smile, express some Gallic discomfort with the compliment and express a wish that the style that makes them popular produced more of the goals that might make them champions.

While substance and style need not be mutually exclusive, it is better to get the goals than the critical acclaim. France came out on the wrong side of that in last summer's Women's World Cup, just as it did as celebrated but undecorated fourth-place finishers in the Olympics and World Cups that preceded. The United States played to poor reviews throughout the early rounds last summer, but it scored the goals to keep playing until it stood on the podium.

Courtesy of an assist from Mallory Pugh that only adds to the burgeoning folktale that surrounds the high schooler's rise to the national team, Alex Morgan's familiar run and deft finish in the first minute of stoppage time was enough for the United States to beat France, the world's third-ranked team, 1-0, and keep the Americans unbeaten in the four-team SheBelieves Cup that concludes Wednesday in Florida.

The question of whether the win also came attached to a performance that matters in the long run elicited differing opinions inside Nissan Stadium and beyond.

"Obviously the result was a great accomplishment," United States coach Jill Ellis said of the message to her players after the game. "But I think I was really pleased with the performance as well. So when you can have the win and the good performance, I think it's a good feeling. I think the players left there with a good feeling. I was really pleased with how we played."

Not everyone agreed, and the dissents weren't limited to social media, but those with no less lofty standards.

Asked about her coach's positive review, Carli Lloyd's eyebrows lifted with surprise. The goal aside, did it feel like a blueprint of a performance? To her, "not exactly."

"I think that we're going through a little bit of growing pains," Lloyd said. "We've got a young team, we've got a lot of new faces on the field. We're sort of implementing a new formation.

"I know for me, I'm not getting the service I would like. But at the end of the day, we were kind of at this point last year, as well. [We] just kind of have to ride the wave a little bit and go through those growing pains and be patient, really. To score and to keep pressing them, score in the 90th minute like Alex did, that's telling of our team. But I'm a little unfulfilled. I think it can be better."

So it goes when the discussion leaves the objective comfort of the scoreboard for the subjective uncertainty of assessing performance.

Start with the quality of the opponent. At least until Lloyd and the United States played the game for the ages in the final against Japan, a case could be made that France was the most impressive team in last year's Women's World Cup -- or at least that its best looked better than any other team's best, even after it was eliminated in a quarterfinal penalty shootout against Germany.

Minus Amandine Henry and Wendie Renard, France looked like the same team from last summer. It lost to Germany in the opening game of this tournament because, again, it failed to turn advantages in possession and chances into goals. However, France played the better game. Given Japan's current Olympic qualifying woes and the changeover in Germany's roster, France might be the world's second-best team. Should the U.S. really be able to play through or dominate that team? Or will even a win, most of the time, look a little messy?

While it was the more active team in the game's opening minutes, the U.S. should have been behind by at least a goal within the game's first 20 minutes. An American giveaway in its own half put the ball at the feet of France's Elodie Thomis in open space on the right side, among the most terrifying sights a defense could see. Thomis pushed forward and delivered a perfect cross that Eugenie Le Sommer should have finished, but scuffed harmlessly.

Minutes later, as Hope Solo was already forced in to push Louisa Necib's long-distance free kick over the bar after it carried dangerously close to the goal's top corner, Lloyd mishit a clearance that caromed off the post for a near own goal. In a reminder she is the world's best keeper -- and often the least used -- Solo recovered quickly to get across to the other side of the goal in time to save a point-blank shot from Marie-Laure Delie.

The United States, meanwhile, piled up corner kicks, but did little to test the French goal before halftime. Morgan missed one good opportunity, and both she and Lloyd looked isolated and more than occasionally frustrated.

"I think overall, the first half, we organized, but at times, if Alex or I get the ball, it's really two-v-four up there," Lloyd said. "In order to score, in order to attack, we have to get more numbers higher up the field."

Still, particularly as it piled up possession in the second half, the Americans seemed to have the better of play against a team that rarely cedes that distinction. Back-to-back shots from close range in the 55th minute, one from Lindsey Horan and another from Tobin Heath, failed to force a save. A Horan header went wide. Pugh tried to play in Morgan, but French central defender Laura Georges, as she did most of the day, snuffed it out. Another Pugh run from outside in dazzled but fizzled out when she was unable to either slip in a pass or find a shot.

Then, finally, came the breakthrough.

Pugh settled the bouncing ball in midfield, stayed on her feet through yet another physical challenge and played a perfect ball that Morgan collected in stride without pulling her back toward the chasing defender.

"She did really well this game," Morgan said. "She takes players on 1-v-1; she passes when she needs to. I think she has great decision making, so I knew when she took that ball down, I just needed to get my butt past the defenders, and Mal played me in perfectly. All I needed to do is put it past the keeper."

Before the matchup against France, Ellis said she was happy to get more than an hour out of the teenager before subbing her out in the tournament opener against England. On Sunday, she said she didn't think of taking Pugh out while the game was tied. Instead, as Crystal Dunn and Christen Press entered as late subs, Lloyd moved to a slightly deeper midfield position and Pugh moved in from the wing to the No. 10 role that Ellis contends is her most natural position. There, she produced the game-winning assist.

"I thought all day her separation was excellent," Ellis said. "And she obviously picked up that ball and played a great through ball. So I'm really pleased with where she's come in this tournament because I think it's not just the mental piece, it's also the physical dimension of these games that's brand new to her at this level. She's handled it masterfully."

But what is the proper reaction to Sunday's game as a whole? Was it something to build on or something to tear down? The goal scorer found a middle ground.

"I think we possessed most of the time in the second half, and we had the better half of the chances," Morgan said. "So I'm happy with the way that we played, and with the subs that came on, they really helped the team pick up energy in the second half. That was important as well. I mean, with all the work we had put in in the first and second halves, I didn't want to come away with a tie. I thought we were deserving of a win."