Amid the fallout from the NWSL report, England-USWNT was a testament to the game's strength

LONDON -- In one emotive moment at Wembley, the players of England and the United States highlighted the vulnerability of the women's game at the end of an emotionally draining week for the sport. And then they gave us a 90-minute showcase of all of its strengths.

A collective prematch team photograph with the players of the European champions (England) and world champions (United States) standing together behind a banner saying, "Protect The Players" was a direct response to the shocking findings of an independent report which found "systemic verbal and emotional abuse and sexual misconduct" in the National Women's Soccer League.

- ESPN's 'Truth be Told: The Fight for Professional Women's Soccer'

USWNT forward Megan Rapinoe described the findings -- conducted by former U.S. deputy attorney general Sally Yates, on behalf of the U.S. Soccer Federation -- as "horrifying" ahead of this game, admitting she was "emotionally exhausted" after reading the report which also accused the USSF of failing to adequately protect the players.

In solidarity with the American players, England manager Sarina Wiegman said the findings were "horrible and unacceptable."

Both sets of players wore teal armbands as a visual statement of their support for the victims of the abuse, while the Wembley Arch was lit in the same colour for 15 minutes before kickoff.

The ramifications of the report, and what happens next, are uncertain and it is clear that the women's game, not just in the United States, demands greater safeguards and protection for its players. But while the fallout will continue to impact the game for weeks and months to come, it cannot be allowed to overshadow the talent and fortitude of the teams and players who are continually raising the standard and profile of women's soccer.

Prior to this week's shameful findings, Friday's match was designed to provide a platform for the very best in the sport -- the newly crowned European champions against the game's long-standing best team and reigning world champions. And although the game itself inevitably became of secondary importance in the wake of the Yates report, by the end of 90 pulsating minutes at Wembley, the good of the women's game claimed its place in the spotlight, shoving the bad and the ugly into the margins while the two teams showed why they will both believe they can win the World Cup next summer.

England's 2-1 victory, following first-half goals from Lauren Hemp and Georgia Stanway on either side of Sophia Smith's equaliser, was their first against the U.S. since 2017 and another crucial morale boost ahead of the World Cup. Since Alex Morgan's legendary tea cup celebration after scoring in the U.S.'s win against England in the 2019 World Cup semifinal, the Lionesses have grown in stature and belief, winning a first major tournament at Euro 2020 this year.

Beating the USWNT, even in a friendly game, is simply another building block of confidence for Wiegman's team going into next summer. And although losing at Wembley will be shrugged off by the U.S. as nothing more than a bump in the road between now and their attempt to win a fifth world title, Vlatko Andonovski's players will travel to Australia and New Zealand next year having allowed one of their major rivals to gain a psychological boost.

What happens on the big stage, when the pressure is truly on, is what really matters, though, and the USWNT have the experience of lasting the course more than anyone. They still have Rapinoe, one of the most consistent players in the world game for the past decade, and Morgan will be back at the World Cup having missed this game with a knee injury. And goal scorer Smith and Trinity Rodman -- who had a potential goal disallowed by the video assistant referee -- both showed why they form the next generation of USWNT stars.

But England are a much stronger team than the one beaten by the U.S. in France three years ago. Even without injured captain Leah Williamson and forward Alessia Russo, they were able to beat the world champions. Hemp and Stanway are world-class players, and midfielder Keira Walsh once more proved why Barcelona paid a world-record fee for her transfer from Manchester City.

Fran Kirby, Lucy Bronze, Chloe Kelly and Beth Mead have all shown that they belong at elite level and, having beaten Spain, Sweden and Germany on the way to being crowned European champions, they have now enjoyed the sweet taste of victory over the best team in the world. When the draw is made for the World Cup in Auckland, New Zealand, on Oct. 22, both England and the U.S. will know their route to glory next summer and when they are likely to meet.

Neither will want to meet the other before the final. But before then, the game must digest and deal with the findings of this week's report. It will be a tough time for all involved, but there is real strength in the women's game and that was underscored on an emotional night at Wembley.

"It's been an extremely difficult week for everybody and I'm proud of the players for even being on the field and playing the game," Andonovski said after the match. "It wasn't easy.

"I applaud their bravery and I applaud their fearless mentality and relentlessness. Once again they showed that nothing can stop them playing the game that they love. I'm very proud of them and hoping we never have to go through that again."