Column: ‘We’re building that chemistry.’ U.S. women’s soccer reinforces optimism heading into World Cup

U.S. midfielder Lindsey Horan, left, and Sophia Smith, center, celebrate with forward Trinity Rodman, right, who scored.
U.S. midfielder Lindsey Horan, left, and Sophia Smith, center, celebrate with forward Trinity Rodman, right, who scored in the second half Sunday’s sendoff soccer match against Wales in San Jose.
(Josie Lepe / Associated Press)
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The shrieks and cheers that had filled the air all day followed members of the U.S. women’s World Cup team as they left the field at PayPal Park on Sunday with a sendoff victory over Wales and a confidence boost, two key items on their preflight checklist.

They had a few basic objectives in their final game before they open World Cup play July 21 against Vietnam in Auckland, New Zealand. “No injuries, and focusing on some details,” said Bellflower’s Savannah DeMelo, who earned her first national team cap with a dynamic performance as a second-half substitute in the Americans’ 2-0 victory over Wales.

“I think we did that, and I think we’re going into the tournament with a good win.”

If it was sometimes more of a struggle than an artistic triumph, at least until Trinity Rodman pumped adrenaline into their offense and scored off a nifty pass from Sophia Smith in the 76th minute and curled a shot inside the right post in the 87th minute, they might gain more from having battled and adjusted and having given crucial minutes to young players than they might have gotten out of a romp with an experienced lineup.


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Wales didn’t qualify for the World Cup but the team still worked hard in what was a friendly game but left both sides with more than a few bruises. Wales played well in its defensive third of the field in the first half, keeping the U.S. scoreless. “I think it frustrated us a little bit,” said striker Alex Morgan, who was replaced by Rodman to start the second half. “We’re going to see all different styles in the World Cup and we’re going to see somebody like Wales presented today.”

The Americans needed to be more aggressive and increase the pace and tempo, coach Vlatko Andonovski told them at halftime. Bringing in Rodman and DeMelo made that happen — and magnified the shrieks from the sellout crowd of 18,000.

“Savannah earned it all. She definitely deserves to be at the World Cup,” defender Sofia Huerta said. “And Trinity obviously has been performing for the last couple years, and for her to score two goals before the World Cup is just such good timing for her. We’re definitely going to depend on both of them at some point.”

The instinctive connection between Rodman and Smith on Sunday showed promise of future scoring collaborations.

“Wales was organized and disciplined and they defended well and made it really hard for us,” Andonovski said. “But Trinity came in and had a task to fulfill and she was one of the players that went in that tried to raise the pace. And we saw that the tempo changed dramatically, and obviously the second goal, I think that’s a world-class goal.”

Their success gives Andonovski more options to consider while several players continue to recover from injuries.


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Versatile Angel City midfielder Julie Ertz, who has been slowed by a thigh injury, was cleared to play and might have gotten into the game Sunday if it had been meaningful, Andonovski said. Creative midfielder Rose Lavelle (knee) also has been cleared. Megan Rapinoe, who announced Saturday that her fourth World Cup will be her last and that she will retire at the end of the NWSL season, also sat Sunday as she recovers from a calf injury.

“Rose and Pino are still in the build-up stage,” Andonovski said. “They’re healthy, and now it’s just getting them physically ready for games.”

Rodman said the team has begun to come together despite having assembled less than two weeks ago. Players will get more time to bond while at their Auckland training base, with few distractions available.

“We’d gone months without playing with each other so this was kind of our first game, and I’m really glad that we stepped it up in the second half,” Rodman said. “Every game is a test, and we’re building that chemistry every time on the field together.”

Sometimes, that takes patience. “Obviously, it’s a younger roster this year,” said Rodman, one of 14 World Cup rookies, “but I think the mix of experience and the youth has been really good to learn from each other, because I think just as much as we can learn from them, they can also learn from us.”

For Andonovski, the fact that his team had to up its game to beat Wales was a reminder that this tournament, newly expanded to 32 teams, could present some tricky challenges.


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When observers say the rest of the world is catching up to the two-time defending World Cup champion and No. 1 ranked U.S., he sees the biggest improvement among the lower ranked teams, citing No. 2-ranked Germany’s recent loss to Zambia and mere 2-1 victory over Vietnam.

“The world that is catching up is Wales, is Vietnam, is Zambia, Portugal,” he said. “These are the countries that are catching up. The 7-0 or 8-0 games are gone. And we can see that. And what we are preparing ourselves for is we don’t come into a game like that with the mentality, ‘Oh, you know, it’s going to be easy.’ No game is going to be easy. Right now, we know Vietnam is not going to be easy.”

The U.S. and Wales players exchanged jerseys after Sunday’s game, triggering double-takes among lingering autograph seekers who saw Morgan’s name or Rapinoe’s on the back of a familiar jersey and thought they’d hit the jackpot, only to discover an unfamiliar face. The U.S. women could afford to leave those jerseys behind. They packed their hopes and dreams with their reinforced optimism as they began the long trip they hope will end with a third straight World Cup championship. It’s up to the rest of the world now to catch them.

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