There's a sense of inevitability about most matches involving the United States women's national team. The opposition might hang with the U.S. for a bit. They might even threaten the goal on occasion. But eventually, like a steamroller in the process of smoothing out a new road, the U.S. will run over their opponents with their passing, pressing and combination play around the box. The goals eventually will come.
But over the course of the Olympic tournament set to begin later this month, there is bound to be a game or two when the U.S. team's clever buildup play and defensive prowess won't be enough. There will need to be a bit of magic, an individual play that defies tactics and toughness and provides a goal that will prove to be the difference.
That was on display in Thursday's match. Tobin Heath, who hasn't suited up for the U.S. since November because of ankle and knee injuries, came on in the 73rd minute and scored on a rocket from 30 yards just 52 seconds later.
"It was huge. I didn't know if I'd get back to this place," Heath said about the goal. "And obviously it took a lot of work and patience. Honestly, I had a lot of help, so I have a lot of people to be thankful for that. That helped me along the way, but I just had to take every single day and you know I didn't have much time, so I had to make the most of it all. It was hard but I was really happy with that."
U.S. manager Vlatko Andonovski rightly pointed out that Heath is by no means the only U.S. player capable of scoring a highlight-reel goal. The likes of Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Christen Press (who scored twice vs. Mexico) are among those who can summon a moment of magic as well. In fact, Press' play just might keep Heath out of the starting lineup. But a team can never have too many of those kinds of performers, and you never know which one will pop on the day. And the fact that Heath delivered such a spectacular finish eased some concerns about her fitness and sharpness ahead of the Olympic opener against Sweden on July 21.
"Tobin has done very well so far in terms of returning to play," Andonovski said. "She's [worked] very hard, physically. Medically she doesn't have anything holding her back, and there's no concerns from that standpoint. The only thing now is just 'gaming' and she's going to get that now."
The team and coaches were almost as thrilled as Heath, with the attacker receiving too many post-game hugs to count.
"I have to say, [the goal] is very satisfying, very fulfilling," Andonovski added. "It's makes us all happy, especially for a player that hasn't played a game in a long time, and to score such a great goal on her second touch, all that is great."
Heath was reluctant to get into the specifics of her ailments, but she suffered an ankle injury in January, and in the process of going through her rehab suffered a knee injury, forcing her to not only miss matches with the U.S. but also the remainder of the club season with Manchester United. Heath said a visit from her mother, Cindy, helped her deal with the mental anguish of the injury. But the subsequent knee ailment forced a return stateside, where U.S. under-20 manager Laura Harvey helped Heath recover physically.
"Laura was instrumental," Heath said. "It was the first time, personally, I'd worked with her. Obviously, I'd heard really great things about her, but she was really great on the football side of the return and it's always great to have the professionals around you, really pushing you."
The rest of the night saw the U.S. put Mexico through the meat grinder. The pressure slowly built, and it was the Mewis sisters, Kristie and Sam, who concocted the all-important breakthrough in the 21st minute. Sam's deflected shot from Kristie's pass found the back of the net, resulting in a sibling celebration that was the first such goal in U.S. women's national team history.
"[Sam] texted me before the game, and said, 'If we score a sister-sister goal, we have to do a chest-bump after.'" Kristie Mewis said. "So of course, it happens and I have to like remind her. I was like, 'Sam! Sam!' So I ran up to her and we chest-bumped and it was just, I mean it's hilarious that it actually happened that way. But it feels really good."
Press bagged the second six minutes before halftime with a tap-in that finished off a well-worked team goal that involved Lindsay Horan, Sam Mewis, and Rapinoe. Following Heath's brilliant goal, Press added her second five minutes from time with a deft finish from Tierna Davidson's cross.
It was a complete team performance, one that took place amid a downpour. Andonovski was impressed, for the most part, though he had some quibbles.
"It took us a little bit of time to recognize the area and the space that we can break them down as a movement," he said. "So once you've adjusted the movements and the timing, I thought that things started moving in our direction. And the other thing that I was personally happy with was our high press.
"But also I think credit to Mexico. I think they did a very good job breaking us down more than what our threshold is. And that's something that we're going to have to address and do better."
The two teams will meet again at the same venue Monday. The U.S. will be hoping that both the meat grinder and the magic will be on display.