Younger U.S. Women’s National Team sees room to grow even in dominant win
Turns out the kids are all right after all.
Or maybe they’re just getting a little luckier.
Either way, the young, retooling United States women’s national soccer team finally found its footing Sunday, thumping New Zealand 5-0 in a SheBelieves Cup game in which it benefited from three first-half own goals by Kiwi defender Meikayla Moore.
In the second game, unbeaten Iceland downed the Czech Republic 2-1. Iceland and the U.S. will play for the tournament title Wednesday in suburban Dallas.
The U.S. had the oldest team in last summer’s Tokyo Olympics, and it looked its age in stumbling to a bronze medal. So last fall, coach Vlatko Andonovski began refreshing his roster in preparation for the July tournament in Mexico that serves as qualifying for the 2023 World Cup and the 2024 Olympics.
After a career that started at Harvard-Westlake and took her to New Zealand’s national team, Ali Riley has joined Angel City FC for its first NWSL season.
That process continued this winter, with the players he started in the SheBelieves opener last week averaging 25 years of age, the youngest lineup for the women’s national team in almost four years. They rewarded Andonovski with a disjointed, inefficient and ultimately scoreless draw against the Czech Republic, the Americans’ fifth goalless effort in their last 13 games and their second shutout at home since 2007.
Sunday’s lineup was a mix of veterans and youngsters, and the difference was noticeable. Playing before a friendly, sun-bathed crowd of 16,587 at Dignity Health Sports Park, the U.S. controlled the ball for 52 of the 90 minutes, outshot New Zealand 19-6 and outpassed it by an even wider margin.
The coach’s reaction?
“We still have a lot of areas to build on,” he said.
“This is a process,” he continued. “This is not something like, ‘Oh, now we scored five goals. We’re so good.’ 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.”
The young Americans again had trouble finishing their chances, but their relentless attack kept New Zealand under pressure all afternoon. And as a result the unfortunate Moore, who appeared to be in good position on all three plays, saw three passes bounce off of her and into the New Zealand net.
On the first, the Liverpool center back stuck her right foot in front of an Ashley Sanchez cross and deflected it past goalkeeper Erin Nayler. Eighty-two seconds later, American Margaret Purce got her head on a long Sofia Huerta cross and bounced it off Moore and into the net.
That marked the first time the U.S. has benefited from two own goals in the same game since its last match with New Zealand in group play of the Tokyo Games.
The U.S. had never seen an opponent gift it three goals in a game until Moore completed the dubious hat trick in the 36th minute, redirecting in a centering pass from Purce. After that score, Moore stood shell-shocked in front of her goal before slowly turning and trudging stiff-legged up the field.
“It says own goal. But you can’t take away from the fact that we did a lot of great work to put the ball in good spaces,” Purce said. “We try to put the ball in spaces where no matter who touches it, it’s going to go in the goal. It’s really hard to defend. And it worked out for us.”
Asked if she had any empathy for Moore, Purce answered sharply.
“No,” she said.
New Zealand captain Ali Riley did, racing over to put an arm around her teammate. Four minutes later, coach Jitka Klimova subbed Moore off, wrapping her in a hug when she reached the sideline and consoling her for several seconds before the player collapsed in tears at the end of the team bench.
“I said to her that we all know how great a player she is,” Klimova said. “That’s what she needs to keep in her mind. This is something that I’m going to repeat probably many, many times to her.
“She is going to learn from this game. For sure she is not going to forget those three moments.”
The Americans finally scored a goal of their own in the 51st minute when San Dimas native Ashley Hatch nodded in a Sanchez cross from eight yards out. It was the first goal scored by a U.S. player in 2022 and the first by an American in 277 minutes of playing time, dating to November.
Mallory Pugh closed out the scoring three minutes into stoppage time, running on to a headed pass from Hatch, then running away from two defenders to beat Nayler with a right-footed shot from the center of the box.
For Hatch, 26, one of a dozen players getting a chance to earn a spot with the national team, her goal was her third in as many games, and the assist was the first of her international career.
“I’m always happy with opportunity,” she said. “But it’s a competitive environment. Everyone is doing their best to compete and to solidify their spot
“With the younger group coming in, everyone wants to prove themselves.”
Despite Sunday’s score, that remains a work in progress.