The United States women's national team had no trouble breaking down Nigeria on Saturday, winning 4-0 in Kansas City in the Americans' first game since their July 18 triumph over Canada in the CONCACAF W Championship final.
Sophia Smith tallied a brace before halftime to continue her great year for club and country, while Lindsey Horan added a goal to her contributions in addition to expertly patrolling the midfield. Alex Morgan added a second-half goal from the penalty spot.
1. It's clear that the USWNT have a consistent XI
USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski started the exact same XI as he did against Canada the last time out for the U.S., another indication that this is the group that he will move forward with on the road to the World Cup.
Andonovski said that these two games against Nigeria - and the Oct. 7 clash against European champions England -- will be geared more toward getting this group further familiarized with each other. Those desired combinations were on display in scoring moments like Smith's second, when Alex Morgan checked low for the ball, spun and played overlapping fullback Emily Fox in behind, with Fox picking out Smith for the finish.
Whereas chemistry appeared to still be lacking at times on the way to the USWNT's regional triumph in Mexico last month, it was abundant on Saturday. Horan and Rose Lavelle provided the playmaking from central positions for the USWNT, creating passing triangles with wide players to pull Nigeria out of its shape and jump out to an early lead.
There are players currently injured who will have a case for cracking the starting lineup once healthy, but right now, it's clear who Andonovski favors.
2. No questions about the wingers
Smith and Mallory Pugh were exceptional for the United States in their flanking of Alex Morgan. Smith's two goals give her 10 for her senior international career, making her the second-youngest player (behind Pugh) to hit that milestone in the past 20 years, per Opta.
Pugh did not show up on the scoresheet, but she provided a number of early crosses into dangerous areas and continues to do the unrecognized dirty work, just as she does for the Chicago Red Stars. Pugh tracked back nearly all the way to her own 18-yard box in the 9th minute to win the ball back and start a counterattack which should have led to more but for a wasteful ball from Fox.
The only real questions around the USWNT's front line are around the re-integration of the injured Catarina Macario. On form, Pugh, Smith and Morgan are indisputably the starters -- and arguably the top three in the National Women's Soccer League MVP race, too. All of them have been in fine form throughout the year, but standout play from Pugh and Smith on Saturday was particularly encouraging for the U.S. after each had endured some frustrating moments in front of goal during the CONCACAF W Championship.
3. Fullbacks in focus as Andonovski searches for depth
It was a good day to be Sofia as well as Sophia. Rightback Sophia Huerta also played her best game thus far for the USWNT, playing direct roles in both of Smith's goals without showing up in the official assist column.
Huerta won the 50-50 ball at midfield, off Nigeria's goal kick, to ultimately put Smith in for her opening goal. Huerta then made an exceptional recovery tackle to not only prevent Nigeria from countering off a USWNT corner kick, but the repossession then led to Smith's second goal a few touches later. Huerta did well when needed on the other end, too, stepping in to clear a loose ball on Nigeria's only corner kick of the half.
Fox, on the opposite side, was uneasy on the ball early in the match -- including the ninth-minute counterattack when she chose to pass to the wrong runner -- but soon got involved in more combination play, including Smith's second goal.
Notably, Hailie Mace replaced Fox with 20 minutes to play. Mace is in camp with the USWNT for the first time in over four years, a necessitated by her form with the Kansas City Current (and injury to Kelley O'Hara). Fullback remains a position of need for the U.S. from a depth perspective, and Mace offers an attacking profile like Fox with additional physicality and more of a converted forward's mind.
United States (4-3-3): Alyssa Naeher 6; Sofia Huerta 8, Becky Sauerbrunn 6, Alana Cook 6, Emily Fox 7; Rose Lavelle 7, Lindsey Horan 8, Andi Sullivan 7; Sophia Smith 8, Alex Morgan 7, Mallory Pugh 7.
Subs: Megan Rapinoe 6, Hailie Mace 7, Ashley Sanchez 6, Margaret "Midge" Purce 6, Ashley Hatch 6, Kristie Mewis 6.
Nigeria (4-2-3-1): Chiamaka Nnadozie 5; Michelle Alozie 5, Osinachi Ohale 5, Glory Ogbonna 5, Toni Payne 5; Deborah Ajibola 5, Christy Ucheibe 5; Uchenna Kanu 5, Rasheedat Ajibade 6, Gift Monday 6; Ifeoma Onumonu 6.
Subs: Blessing Demehin 5, Vivian Ikechukwu 6, Rofiat Adenike Imuran 6, Amanda Mbadi 6, Akudo Ogbonna 5, Nicole Payne 5.
Best and worst performers
BEST: Sophia Smith, United States
This was Smith's best game in a USWNT shirt. She scored twice, pulled Nigeria's back four out of shape both on the dribble in wide areas and with central runs, and did the work on the defensive side to press when needed.
WORST: Osinachi Ohale, Nigeria
Nigeria's entire back four struggled and it was Ohale who frequently scrambled to organize the unit and struggled to make quick decisions, like when she didn't step with Morgan on the USWNT's third goal.
Highlights and notable moments
As highlight-reel cutbacks go, it doesn't get much better than what Lindsey Horan did to Christy Ucheibe to score the United States' second goal.
Team goals: This is the kind of combination play the USWNT needs more of.
After the match: What the managers, players said
"I thought that we controlled the game, controlled the pace of the game throughout the whole 90 minutes but also I didn't feel like we finished as strong as we started, so that's disappointing. Something that we were going to have to address or work on and talk about in preparation for the next game." -- USWNT manager Vlatko Andonovski
"First of foremost, this is the best team in the world and in order to play on this team, you have to be one of the best in the world. She is a special player and she's certainly developing aspects of her game that she maybe wasn't special in: Ability to pop in pockets or to recognize those pockets and then expose the defense. For us as coaches, we're happy to see that because it gives us another layer or gives us an opportunity to create strategy in a way that we believe we can expose teams." -- Andonovski on Sophia Smith
Key Stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information)
- Alex Morgan (USA): scored in the 52nd minute on a penalty; she hs 119 international goals, 11 behind Kristine Lilly for 4th-most in USWNT history
- Alex Morgan (USA): 14th player in USWNT history to score against at least one team from each of the 6 FIFA confederations
- Sophia Smith (USA): scored two goals (14' & 45+1'); she now has 10 goals in 22 caps tying Michelle Akers for the 6th fastest to double-digit goals in USWNT history
- Lindsey Horan (USA): scored in the 25th minute, her first goal with the National team since Nov. 27th, 2021 vs Australia in a friendly
- USWNT: 12th straight win in in all competitions, outscored opponents 50-1 over the 12-gmae win streak
- USWNT: Victory stretches its home unbeaten run to 70 matches (63 wins, 7 draws)
- USWNT: Ninth straight shutout, last goal scored against the USWNT in any competition was April 9th vs Uzbekistan
The USWNT and Nigeria will play each other again on Tuesday night at D.C. United's Audi Field.