<
>

Competitive Germany Brings Out Best In U.S. Women

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- It's not the end. It's until we meet again.

And if that is anything like this was, then don't make plans for Aug. 19. There could be a pretty good show in Rio de Janeiro's Maracana, the famed stadium that has seen its share of them.

Before moving on to all the necessary caveats about what was and was not on the line Wednesday night inside FAU Stadium, who played and who didn't and whether there really needed to be a stage and shower of confetti afterward, hit pause. This was fun. This was the kind of game that the United States women's national team doesn't get to play very often.

Maybe because it rarely gets to play one of the only teams, maybe the only team, that really believes it is no worse than its equal. Germany came to play. So the United States got to do the same.

"First of all, it's a physical game, and second of all, it tests us technically," Alex Morgan said of this and any game against Germany. "They're matching us on all different fronts."

And like a victory last summer in the World Cup, a 2-1 win Wednesday brought out the best in the U.S. women.

The win clinched them the SheBelieves Cup. More importantly, the United States got the result by playing the way it wants to play -- and the way Jill Ellis believes gives her team the best chance of becoming the first to win Olympic gold the year after winning the World Cup.

The U.S. women looked as good going forward in the opening 15 to 20 minutes as they had at any point in the tournament, maybe as good as they have since last year's World Cup final. That was true from the opening minute when Carli Lloyd's 40-yard run crescendoed with an at-speed deke on the edge of the 18-yard box and brought the crowd to full volume. But Lloyd couldn't quite put the ensuing shot inside the post. Active on the right flank in a rare start, Christen Press earned herself two quality chances but couldn't find the right angle. Morgan broke loose for chances, half-chances and dangerous-looking no-chances to no avail.

So the game was still scoreless in the 29th minute when Germany's Isabel Kerschowski claimed a giveaway in midfield and fed Anja Mittag near the top of the 18-yard box. Given half a step of freedom by the back line, she buried a shot inside the near post.

Game on.

"I thought the intensity of both teams, you put two great teams on a small pitch and the intensity was fantastic," Ellis said. "What we emphasized was trying to play out of pressure and then play. You're going to turn the ball over sometimes when you're dealing with that kind of pressure."

Throughout the first half, at least, Mittag and Kerschowski teamed up to threaten the U.S. goal as it hasn't been threatened in a long time, certainly not this year.

For the first time since late in a December friendly against China, the United States trailed. And given the unusual circumstances of that game, the Americans focused less on winning or even playing their style than simply getting Abby Wambach a goal in her farewell performance. But Wednesday marked the first time the United States trailed in a game of any substance since an October game against Brazil.

It took them 82 minutes to salvage a draw that night. It took six minutes in Boca Raton.

It took 12 minutes to reclaim the lead.

The first goal came courtesy of Morgan, the same player who drew the penalty that Lloyd converted for the eventual game-winning goal in the World Cup semifinal. After winning a battle for the ball near the sideline a few yards into her own half, Meghan Klingenberg turned, took two touches forward across the midfield stripe and launched a long pass that Morgan let bounce in front of her as she held off a German defender near the top of the 18-yard box. Morgan then caught up to the ball about 10 yards from goal, lifted it over another defender with her left foot and volleyed it with her right foot past the helpless goalkeeper.

"I think I was a little shocked myself," Morgan said. "That's why I probably didn't celebrate."

Morgan had her hands full after the match as she spoke with the tournament's Golden Boot cradled in one arm, marking her as the tournament's leading scorer, and the Golden Ball resting in the other arm, designating her as the event's best overall player.

That the Germans came away empty handed had a lot to do with the handful Morgan remains for opponents.

The goal was a bit of brilliance, every bit as good or better than the strike Crystal Dunn produced to win the opening game of the tournament against England. But Morgan was a force throughout the game, her runs pulling and stretching Germany's back line like taffy. By her own admission, she wants to improve her conversion rate, but this is a different Morgan than did the best she could in the World Cup while coming back from injury.

"We started to see it in January with training," Ellis said. "She's fit, she's healthy and just has a great mentality. What I'm pleased with is a goal scorer wants to score goals. So for all her hard work and her commitment, now she's starting to reap the benefits again. So I couldn't be more pleased for her, and certainly for us as a team, I thought she was dynamic in behind, I thought she was great back to pressure. I thought she played a very complete game."

If the tying goal came from one of the most predictable sources, especially these days, the goal that won the game came from the opposite end of the spectrum.

"I've never really been in a game that fast before," Samantha Mewis said of her first encounter with the world's second-ranked team.

In the 41st minute, Mewis was stronger than German veteran Melanie Behringer on a 50-50 ball in midfield and dispossessed her counterpart. She turned and found only empty grass -- and sand, on a pitch that wasn't up to the standard of the two teams -- in front of her. She said she noticed German defenders dropping off toward Dunn and Press on the wings and thought she might as well take a crack at goal. She let loose from just beyond the top of the 18-yard box, the ball took a significant deflection off a German player and slipped under the wrong-footed keeper.

Generally upbeat about her team, feeling with good reason that it improved with each game in the tournament, Germany coach Silvia Neid nonetheless lamented two things through a spokesperson. First, that her team missed an opportunity to get a second goal before the United States could equalize, and second, that the Americans have such a frustratingly deep roster that it doesn't really matter who they put on the field.

Like, for instance, a midfielder who started Wednesday night for the first time all tournament. The goal itself was a bit of good fortune. The ability of Mewis, who looked shaky in brief time in Olympic qualifying, to use the subsequent weeks to settle in and play with confidence, if also a few mistakes here and there, is of more consequence. The United States loves to talk about its depth, even with a lot of new faces around these days. Between Mewis, Press, Dunn and Whitney Engnen, it showed the depth is real.

"I think I kind of expected a higher level game than I had probably ever seen before," Mewis said of expectations that were met. "But I was kind of calm knowing that I play at that level with this team in practice quite often. I was joking with Lindsey [Horan] after the game, saying, 'I've been playing with you and Morgan for three months and marking you in practice. Who in the world is better than that?'

"It's calming to know that my daily practices are so challenging and that I'm playing with such great players that I feel like I could play against anyone."

This wasn't a final, no matter how much confetti fell on the field after it was over. But it was played in a manner we are so often disappointed finals are not.

The field wasn't great, players were missing and lineups were jumbled.

But it was an instructive end to an important tournament. And perhaps an entertaining preview for a game in the Maracana that will mean something.