Retooled U.S. women open SheBelieves Cup with 1-0 win over Germany

CHESTER, Pa. -- The United States hoped to play this game in Rio de Janeiro. It hoped the backdrop would be the sun setting over the Maracana. It hoped it would represent the final step in a march to history, the first team to win World Cup and Olympic titles in successive years.

The Americans instead had to settle for a smaller setting Wednesday on the banks of the Delaware River, the threat of thunderstorms standing in for any South American sun. There was no history on the line, just another in the many and very early steps toward greater aspirations.

It still feels good to beat Germany, of course. It always feels good to beat Germany.

What mattered more Wednesday was how the U.S. women played in a 1-0 win against the team one spot behind them atop the FIFA world rankings. And there is no better place to start than a goal that was the product of everything the team has talked about being in this post-Olympics reset.

Playing a game of this magnitude for the first time, 23-year-old Lynn Williams scored the winner in the 56th minute. The player who made such a splash last fall by scoring the fastest debut goal in U.S. history, even if the record lasted only a few days, made her second goal a memorable one.

But the other part of the story is how the ball arrived at her feet, a play set up by a tackle at midfield from someone who has scored 41 goals in 81 appearances for the national team. A tackle from a player who sees herself as no less a part of the answer than the newcomers.

U.S. coach Jill Ellis wants her team to press, wanted it against the team that won Olympic gold and wants it as a general principle.

Who better to do so than Christen Press?

While the United States outplayed Germany almost from the outset, not by a mile but by enough to notice, the game hit a lull in the early minutes of the second half. American pressure that had put Germany on its heels early waned and a stalemate loomed. Then Press closed quickly on German defender Isabel Kerschowski near the sideline. Press won the ball, took off down the right side, cut inside with a soft touch and fired a shot that smacked off the goal frame.

The rebound off the frame fell to Tobin Heath, whose own shot was blocked by a defender in front of goal -- but only as far as the feet of Williams, who one-touched the ball into the net.

Official assist or not, it still came about because of Press. A veteran who took a circuitous route to the national team in the first place, Press has both always been a willing servant and needed to be when asked to play a variety of roles by multiple coaches. But when she and Ellis spoke recently about her role in this new look, she took on a new challenge willingly.

"Playing her in the pure No. 9 is probably her most natural position," Ellis said. "But just her commitment in terms of pressing the ball and physically challenging to the ball, we can use her. We wanted to press, so we needed a forward that makes sure they can physically commit to the game, obviously both sides of the ball. Christen committed to that. And I think her work rate has been tremendous. Now couple that with I think she's a natural goal scorer. She's always looking to get in behind, she's always off shoulder.

"She's done well in training and you've got to reward that."

This was not a safe lineup for the United States. Keeping the three-back that she turned to with regularity last fall, Ellis started Crystal Dunn and Mallory Pugh as the wide players on either side of those three defenders (the coach rejected the idea that Dunn and Pugh were traditional wingbacks who were expected to drop in and defend alongside the center backs, saying she wanted them on the front foot at all times). To that end, Germany coach Steffi Jones noted after the game how little time her team had to play out of the back. Playing that aggressively doesn't work if people don't buy in to the philosophy, whether or not they find themselves playing their preferred position or role.

That's true of Dunn when she plays wider and deeper than she might like. It's true for Pugh, who came on in a similar role. It's true for Casey Short, a natural outside back playing farther inside. And it's certainly true for Press, closing down the ball on the sideline.

"It was about prepping for 2019 and where she wants me to be there and kind of dreaming big and trying to expand my capacity a little bit," Press said of what she and Ellis talked about. "So that when we're in this year that seems like an off year, it's actually the most important time to grow. So we talked about the areas she wants to see me develop, which is being a better physical presence holding up the ball and being more aggressive and confident in my play."

Whatever vision Ellis has works only if both old and new mesh. The new faces like Williams draw much of the focus for now because they're new. The unknown is more compelling than the known. But those who were here before are needed just as much, whether closing in on 100 caps, like Press, or 20 caps, like Samantha Mewis.

"I think that in the last year, and especially in the last couple of months, it's definitely more open for competition," Press offered in a concurring opinion. "I think Jill has been bringing in players who are playing excellently in the league, and that pushes the players that have been around and also gives hope to all the players in the NWSL."

That the product looked promising is what matters. Although beating Germany is nice.

The opening act offered its own drama, as third-ranked France beat fifth-ranked England 2-1. A Jordan Nobbs goal put England up 1-0 in the first half, but two familiar faces rescued France late. Marie-Laure Delie tied the score with an 80th-minute header off a cross from Elodie Thomis. Then with what proved the final kick of the game, and after a quick counter started by French goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi, Wendie Renard headed home Amel Majri's corner kick for the winner.

France went winless and goalless in the first edition of the tournament. It will face Germany on Saturday in Harrison, New Jersey, while England will play the United States later the same day.