USWNT continues to separate off-field matters from on-field play in win over Colombia

Becky Sauerbrunn, one of five USWNT players who recently filed a complaint against U.S. Soccer with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging wage discrimination, said the team is able to separate off-field issues from its play on the field. Rich Barnes/Getty Images

CHESTER, Pa. -- The tickets said the United States played Colombia on Sunday, the second in a two-game series between teams that also met in the World Cup knockout round less than a year ago. The national anthems that played before kickoff confirmed the same.

Two teams, one field, 90 minutes. Score more goals and win. Seems simple.

Just as simple as separating off-the-field issues with on-the-field performance.

Julie Johnston scored twice, Carli Lloyd soaked in a homecoming across the river from her home state of New Jersey and a crowd of 17,275 went home content, if also cold, after the United States beat Colombia, 3-0, in its final game before its players disperse for the start of the National Women's Soccer League season and with only four more international games to play before the Olympics.

Yet as the U.S. used its time on the field preparing for an Olympic tournament that, at least in theory, its players may be asked -- and must be willing -- to sacrifice to stand up for their beliefs, the challenge wasn't Colombia at all, a team that the U.S. beat 7-0 a few days prior. The real opponent, this day and every day from now until August, is the idea that there is a threshold beyond which those two objectives cannot comfortably coexist; that instead there is room to be the world's best and stand up for your vision of a better world.

"When we step on the field, we are 100 percent dedicated to the success of this team," Becky Sauerbrunn said the day before the win. "So off-field matters, we deal with it off field. We will not bring it on field because we won't disrespect the sport, we won't disrespect the supporters that come in and watch our games because we know without them, we're nowhere."

Sauerbrunn, of course, is one of five national team players, along with Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo, who recently filed a complaint against U.S. Soccer with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging wage discrimination. Sunday, as usual, the team's co-captain was in the starting lineup and the voice of the world's best back line.

The balance she described in keeping those two worlds apart seems a challenging one to strike.

"It's not as hard as you would think," Sauerbrunn said. "I think with this team, we've always dealt with issues very well. This team has, through the years, had some things crop up."

Her pause as she searched for proper phrase was telling. And "crop up" achieved the understatement she sought. This team almost never just plays games. Maybe it did in the World Cup final against Japan or the semifinal against Germany before that. But there is almost always another story that follows this team's on-field performances, whether that story is the conduct of a player off the field, concerns about the Zika virus in Brazil, a U.S. Soccer lawsuit against the players association or now the complaint against the federation.

But there was the U.S. on Sunday, doing its best to demonstrate how much it keeps the two worlds at arm's length by immersing itself in the tactical minutia of a team with a sole focus.

Even on the field, Colombia is more a training tool than competition. On a day when the United States could have reasonably expected never to trail, it used a lineup that may be most useful if it does find itself in need of a goal later this year.

With Morgan and Morgan Brian both sidelined for the two-game series by what were described as minor injuries, U.S. coach Jill Ellis seized an opportunity to experiment. That meant starting Tobin Heath at right back, her first start there in more than 100 appearances for the national team. The objective was to test out a lineup that maximized the number of attacking players on the field. Heath was able to push up the right side, while Christen Press was able to push in from the right flank and partner with Crystal Dunn in central positions.

The results looked, at times, like an experiment in progress. Whether or not it was the best way to win this game wasn't the point. It was a drill in the guise of a game.

"Colombia came out slightly differently, sat lower, made it harder," Ellis said. "It's exactly what we needed. So I think, at times, the decision was right, the technical execution was off today a little bit. Having that option with Tobin, giving us another attacking option, getting Press on the field, it's a good option to have in our back pocket, for sure."

The objective was not to audition Heath for a career change. (And no one is happier about that than someone with her attacking instincts.)

Heath's two assists came on set pieces, the connections with Johnston welcome sights as the team tries to replace the service of the retired Lauren Holiday and injured Rapinoe. But the first two goals, at least indirectly, also involved her pushing forward into advanced positions, Colombia unable to deal with the surplus of attacking players in its end. With smaller Olympic rosters and a less experienced player pool, the U.S. both can be and needs to be more versatile.

"I think in the first half, we were thinking a little bit too much about it tactically, how that would look," Heath said. "But I think in the second half it looked a little bit, looked a little more fluid."

The team operates in two parallel worlds, and it believes it can continue to separate off-the-field issues with on-the-field progress. Away from the field, the team is a vehicle of social change. On the field, it is a machine fine-tuning details.

Sauerbrunn said that isn't as difficult as it might seem. The Colombian experience suggests otherwise. A team that showed promise a summer ago in the World Cup and Pan-Am Games barely played together between those events and this two-game series. Players who have been outspoken about their concerns, including stars Lady Andrade and Yorely Rincon, either weren't on this roster or didn't start.

In most places, off-field issues produce on-field ramifications. All concerned insist the United States isn't one of those places.

"I can't say any of the recent conversations, public conversations -- whether it's about wage issues or Zika virus -- have filtered into the training environment or onto the pitch," Ellis said. "Sometimes there's side conversations that I have with players, or I'll meet with the captains, just to keep open lines of communication. But in terms of this group just staying locked on, and the staff staying locked on, I think we really have been able to filter and shield the distractions of the offside.

"I can't say personally this stuff has affected decisions I've made or preparations or even thoughts, in terms of what we're trying to achieve this summer."

She meant Olympic gold, but that isn't the only objective the players are trying to achieve.

"It's a fight that we all very much embrace," Sauerbrunn said of the wage issue that is still to be resolved, along with the collective bargaining issues. "The five of us signed the complaint, but it's very much a team fight."

As is being ready for Brazil, France, Germany and the rest of the Olympic field, the draw set for Thursday.

To maintain the focus to be the best and make the conditions under which they work better.

It wouldn't fit neatly on a ticket, but that is really what fans paid to see the national team do.

The Colombian anthem just happened to be the background music.