ORLANDO, Fla. -- A year after its failure to win either of the showcase tournaments it hosted, the United States has already improved in at least one regard in 2018.
With help from a deflection and ensuing confusion in front of goal that produced an own goal by England goalkeeper Karen Bardsley on a Megan Rapinoe cross, the U.S. beat England 1-0 in the final game of the SheBelieves Cup on Wednesday. The result clinched the title in the round-robin event that also included France and Germany. England could have clinched with a draw.
The U.S. finished 2-0-1 this year and is now 6-2-1 in the three-year old event that has featured the same three opponents, Europe's three highest-ranked teams, each year.
More thoughts to come after U.S. coach Jill Ellis and players speak, but here are three observations at the final whistle of the SheBelieves finale in Orlando.
1. The U.S. played it like a final. Mostly. Ellis said the day before the match that she intended to treat it like a true tournament final. She mostly held to her word. Rather than rotate forwards, she stuck with the preferred line of Alex Morgan, Mallory Pugh and Rapinoe for the third game in a row. Carli Lloyd played 90 minutes. As Ellis stated would be the case before the tournament even began, Alyssa Naeher played every minute in goal. With co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn out, Tierna Davison and Abby Dahlkemper remained the center back pairing for the third game in a row.
It wasn't until late, in need of fresh legs, that the U.S. turned to more inexperienced options.
That continuity paid some dividends, or at least appeared to, as the U.S. applied good pressure, built possession and generally kept Naeher comfortable until an England header off the post in the closing minutes and a final push from the visitors. But the U.S. was also a wounded team by the end, forced to play Crystal Dunn and Emily Sonnett at outside back, both nominally out of their preferred positions. The U.S. also missed Julie Ertz, absent for the second game in a row because of a leg injury, and Samantha Mewis, unavailable all tournament, in the midfield.
2. It is difficult to believe Mallory Pugh has only nine goals. It's even more difficult to believe she has only six goals outside San Diego. Late in the first half, Pugh gathered a ball near the right sideline at least 30 yards from goal, beat England's Demi Stokes with speed and glided across the top of the 18-yard box without letting anyone slow her progress. She finally let loose a shot near the far side of the box, only for it to glance off the outside of the post. The thing is, Pugh does something like that just about every game. She does something like that just about every half. Indeed, minutes into the second half, she again raced ahead of Stokes, no marginal defender, gathered in a long pass and couldn't get a shot low and across Bardsley.
It's still tempting to imagine what it would be like with Pugh in the No. 10 role in the middle of the field, especially watching someone like England's Fran Kirby use that space to great effect this tournament, but that isn't going to happen.
It feels as if Pugh, who has nine goals in 33 appearances, ought to be well clear of players like Mewis (seven goals in 34 games) or Allie Long (six goals in 34 appearances), even if she's essentially on the same pace as Rapinoe. She creates chances that others can't, so it doesn't make much sense to fault her conversion rate. But if the still-only-a-teenager refines her finishing touch even slightly, goodness, the goals could pile up.
3. The world is an unsettled place. We'll stick with the context of women's soccer. There is an understandable focus in this country on how the U.S. team looks ahead of next year's World Cup, but that is only part of the equation. In other words, the U.S., qualification willing, only needs to be better than the other teams in France next summer. Coming out of the SheBelieves, and on the heels of an upset-filled Euros in 2017, it's difficult to say there is any European juggernaut.
Its roster less dependent on Lyon and PSG than years past, for better or worse, France looked listless in its opener, drubbed by England, then beat Germany 3-0 on Wednesday. The Germans drew with England in their second game but generated next to nothing offensively the rest of the time on this side of the Atlantic. And while England came close to winning it all and returned the focus to a roster that is among Europe's most stable at the moment, as opposed to the focus on its new coach Phil Neville, it isn't well suited to the role of favorite next summer.
The Australians look better than ever. Canada might have one more run with Christine Sinclair and a good core of young talent. The Dutch might be able to build on their European title of a year ago. But mights and maybes are more abundant than answers when it comes to handicapping the field for France next summer.