When your opponent has a historically bad performance and a player scores an unheard-of three own goals, how do you evaluate a win?
That is the question for the United States women's national team and coach Vlatko Andonovski, who beat New Zealand 5-0 in the SheBelieves Cup on Sunday with the help of Kiwi defender Meikayla Moore, who was credited with three own goals.
Moore's goals were the USWNT's first three before the New Zealand center-back was substituted in just the 40th minute, setting up an easy win before the Americans had really even earned it. In truth, the 2-0 score without the own goals may have been a better representation of how the match actually played out: the USWNT were a step off throughout the first half, but found their footing and scored twice in the second.
Moore's 50th cap started to unravel in just the fifth minute when forward Sophia Smith whipped a ball into the box and Moore tried to block it, but the ball skipped off her shin into the net from a wide angle. One minute later, full-back Sofia Huerta came from the opposite right side for a similar cross intended for Catarina Macario, but it knocked off the face of an unsuspecting Moore and in.
Only in the 36th minute did Moore make an obvious error: as Midge Purce whipped a short, skipping ball into the box, Moore's swipe to clear the ball was ill-timed, causing her to kick it into goal rather than toward the sideline as intended.
Three own goals scored by one player in a single match, let alone a single half, is exceedingly rare. ESPN Stats & Information couldn't find any other examples that weren't part of a deliberate protest in any recent major competitions. Stan Van Den Buys was credited with three own goals in a Belgian league match in 1995, but video footage shows one of them wasn't actually an own goal.
"This is a game and own goals are part of the game -- it just happens," Andonovski said. "It's unfortunate that it happened to the same player, but she's incredible and I actually thought her positioning was very well -- it's just unlucky sometimes."
Meikayla Moore commits three first-half own goals as the USWNT takes a 3-0 lead over New Zealand into halftime.
Andonovski, who has been using this SheBelieves Cup to evaluate new players that could be the USWNT's stars of tomorrow, insists that his side deserves credit for the moments that led to the own goals. He said: "Even though they were own goals, if you look at the way we built up to come to those opportunities, to come into the areas to create those goals, it was very good."
The USWNT did, however, struggle to generate clear-cut chances in the first half. By the time the USWNT found itself ahead 2-0, the Americans had not even registered a shot on target and they had only generated 0.11 in expected goals, or xG, which is an advanced stat that measures the likelihood of a chance resulting in a goal. When the second half finished with the USWNT up 3-0, they still only had .71 xG in seven shots, one of them on target.
In other words, the USWNT weren't dominating in front of goal, as much as the score made it look that way. New Zealand had just been very unlucky in a couple moments and sloppy in another. But, even if precision may not have been there in the first half for the USWNT, aggression was, and the Americans constantly put New Zealand under pressure, which played a crucial role in the result going the way it did.
"We all understand this is a process," Andonovski said. "It's not like, 'Oh, now we scored five goals and all the sudden we're so good.' No, we still have a lot of areas to build on and grow in."
Only in the second half did the USWNT seem to find their rhythm, and Ashley Hatch scored a splendid header that looked familiar for those who watched any of her Golden Boot-winning season last year in the National Women's Soccer League. In the 51st minute, Huerta picked her head up from the midfield and seemed to pick out Hatch, who had nestled between the center-backs -- Hatch rose up and clinically headed it inside the near post.
"We've been working on swinging the ball around our outside backs and our wingers, and making sure we're available in the box," Hatch said.
Ashley Sanchez, in her first USWNT start, and Huerta each stood out for their chance creation and both earned an assist. Sanchez, who at one point wowed the crowd by dancing past a defender hugging the slideline, recorded .20 expected assists, or xA. Huerta, who had the second-most touches of any player on the field and was all over, managed an xA of .26, the most of any player.
Mallory Pugh, who has been on the outs with the USWNT since the 2019 World Cup, capped off the scoring in the 93rd minute, racing behind on a breakaway and beating goalkeeper Erin Nayler one-on-one for a sweet finish. It was Pugh's 19th goal in 69 appearances.
The second half was likely what Andonovski was hoping to see after a disappointing, lackluster 0-0 draw to the Czech Republic on Thursday. In that game, the U.S. struggled with chance creation and was sloppy in the final third. But against New Zealand, the Americans were certainly better on the ball and they were better off of it too, making smarter runs to find seams within the box.
The USWNT also looked more aggressive than days earlier against the Czech Republic. The midfield players sat higher and attacked more, and the Americans were keen to play more direct and test New Zealand more, whipping the balls into the box that did turn into those own goals.
"We tried to put the ball into spaces where, no matter who touches it, it's gonna go into the goal and it's really hard to defend," Purce said.
The Americans finished the match with 19 shots and 2.64 xG compared to New Zealand's six shots and 0.41 xG, and their win reflected the dominance they enjoyed overall.
The starting lineup on Sunday skewed slightly older than Thursday's group, but it was less experienced, averaging just 36 caps per player. That number was inflated by the presence of defender Becky Sauerbrunn, who made her 201st cap on Sunday, as Andonovski made six changes Sunday to his starting lineup that faced the Czech Republic.
"We want to win every game, we want to win every tournament, but right now the development of this group of players is what is taking priority," Andonovski said.
Although it came from an own goal, the USWNT's first goal snapped a 181-minute shutout streak, which is a rather long scoring drought for a team that has historically been used to dominating opponents but has struggled lately.
The goalless draw on Thursday was the fifth time the USWNT had failed to score in their last 13 matches going back to the start of the Olympics. The Americans were held scoreless only four times in their previous 120 matches dating back to the 2015 World Cup.
Trinity Rodman came off after a knee injury in the 81st minute, but Andonovski said it didn't look serious. Rose Lavelle was held back from the game for a minor injury as well with Andonovski calling her absence precautionary.
The talking point from Sunday may continue to be the rare hat trick of own goals from New Zealand and the helping hand it provided the USWNT. But as the USWNT still looks to be recovering from a Tokyo Olympics where they struggled, and this summer's World Cup/Olympic qualification inches closer, a five-goal win and the major confidence boost it provides is nothing to ignore either.
The USWNT will have one more SheBelieves Cup game to evaluate where the team is at when they face Iceland on Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET, live on ESPN2.