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U.S. defense gains valuable experience, weathers multiple storms

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- That fans showed up at all was both an impressive display of loyalty and a questionable display of judgement. That many of the more than 14,000 sought out any available shelter from the wet and wind, including congregating in restrooms, suggested that at least some semblance of sense remained.

"Yeah, it was miserable," U.S. forward Megan Rapinoe said. "The wind was everywhere, and it was really cold and kind of sideways rain."

And that came from the person who scored the only goal in a 1-0 win for the U.S. women against Germany, a matchup of the top two soccer teams, respectively, in the world rankings.

Thursday was an unpleasant night to be outside in Ohio's capital city. It was raw and wretched, the wind driving the rain into you and the rain and sleet chilling the wind. But it was the kind of night that earns a fan extra credibility. New fan or lifer, if you toughed out conditions like these, you had a story to tell.

"I was even surprised to see almost 15,000 on the board when they announced the attendance because I don't know if I would be in the stands in this situation," joked Alex Morgan, whose glancing header at midfield provided the assist on Rapinoe's first-half goal.

Hopefully, they took something meaningful away from enduring it. Some of those on the field did.

Three-quarters of the starting back line for the United States in its SheBelieves Cup opener -- Abby Dahlkemper, Tierna Davidson and Taylor Smith -- took the field with just 23 caps between them. That wasn't even a quarter of national team appearances of the fourth member of the unit, Kelley O'Hara, let alone a meaningful fraction of the more than 600 caps represented in the rest of the starting lineup. Davidson said she hadn't ever played in snow before. She had company there. She also hadn't ever played Germany. That was rarer.

"It is about those players getting experience against some of the best players in the world," said U.S. coach Jill Ellis of the work of this game, this tournament and this year for her defense. "And add that to the conditions, I think it was just a great challenge that you can't replicate."

Co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn was missing. Julie Ertz is now entrenched in the midfield. Even O'Hara was at less than full health. It all meant that the back line was as raw as the weather. The peril of something similar played out in the day's first game, when England dissected a listless and disorganized French defense playing without its own star in Wendie Renard in a 4-1 rout.

That didn't happen to the United States, which shut out Germany for the third time in the past four meetings despite playing without a defender who started either of the previous games.

This isn't to confuse the score with the performance. The United States didn't play a perfect defensive game or leave Germany stymied and hapless. Germany captain Dzsenifer Marozsan clipped a shot off the post, apparently with a helping touch from O'Hara. And on several scrambles in front of goal, sometimes initiated by the U.S. back line too readily giving ground, fans had reason to hold the breath they could otherwise see.

The U.S. women got what Ellis accurately described as an opportunistic goal when Rapinoe sprinted ahead of Alyssa Naeher's goal kick and Morgan's header, then beat the keeper with a clean finish. Opportunistic goals often decide games between teams like these, and having a healthy Rapinoe alongside Morgan and Mallory Pugh, with Carli Lloyd also back in the starting lineup, gives the United States a lot of people who can do something with opportunities.

But especially given the conditions, the 1-0 win didn't say much more than a 1-1 draw or even a 1-0 loss would have beyond this moment in time. The U.S. women beat Germany in their opening game of this tournament a year ago. That didn't portend similar success in the rest of the event, let alone the rest of a turbulent year. This was one game, made even more an anomaly by the conditions.

What is meaningful is how some of the team's least experienced players handled those anomalous conditions that included wind that weather services said gusted to more than 30 mph throughout the game. How those defenders handled a challenge unlike much of anything they had seen before.

"You can handle the cold," Morgan said. "Obviously, you're not going to be making as many sprints, or your max speed is not going to be as much. The rain and the snow have some sort of an effect with the surface. But the wind, it was going across the field, side to side -- it wasn't even going from one end to the other end. So I think that was kind of where we had difficulty."

Imagine being thrown into that, as Davidson -- who isn't even done with her sophomore year at Stanford and made just her second appearance for the national team in Thursday's game -- experienced, ostensibly in place of one of the national team's all-time cornerstones.

"Before the game, yeah, it's kind of hard not to think about who you're playing," Davidson said. "But once you get into the game, for me, it's just, 'All right, this is another opponent I'm playing against.' Whether it be college soccer or national team soccer, it's a game. I'm used to being able to play a game."

In the 20th minute, a German corner kick cut through the wind toward the far post and appeared to leave U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher uncertain of whether to attack it or stay put. A moment of uncertainty evaporated into meaninglessness when Davidson whacked a clearing header.

About 10 minutes later, a loose Rapinoe pass in the direction of her own goal hung up in the wind and curled back gently to the feet of a German player. No matter. Davidson dug out the cross that ensued and cleared away any danger.

There were probably a dozen small moments like that for Dahlkemper, Davidson and Smith, moments that wouldn't even necessitate a replay. Moments when they dealt with a world-class opponent and a world-class meteorological headache.

Again, take Davidson. Like the wind and snow, the Germans came at her at a speed unlike anything she knew on a field. And she held her own. Maybe she carries on to challenge for a starting spot somewhere on the back line by next summer (she's also an experienced outside back). Maybe she merely provides insurance. Regardless, she has experienced something now that she hadn't when she woke up Thursday.

"Definitely Germany was very technically sound and quick on the ball," Davidson said. "That was something that was unique was you saw the pass being played by you before you could even think. So you had to be sure to be mentally sharp."

The United States now moves on to Harrison, New Jersey, to play France on Sunday. Coincidentally, it was in Harrison in this tournament a year ago that the U.S. women played one of their coldest games in memory in a loss against England.

"I think this was surprisingly warmer," Ertz said of the two games. "I can actually feel my toes this game, which was kind of surprising. Some girls didn't get that lucky."

But cold toes or not, what the U.S. back line got Thursday was invaluable.