U.S. women's national team solves South Africa in Women's World Cup tuneup
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The United States played its first game Sunday since announcing the roster of 23 players that it hopes will produce the latest in a series of unforgettable summers. And then promptly ran into the sort of forgettable game that is almost always a part of those stories.
To get through seven games in the World Cup, there will be 90 minutes like this.
So although a 3-0 win against South Africa was an exercise in problem solving more than riveting entertainment for the largest crowd to see the national team play this year, 22,788 inside Levi's Stadium, there was at least a solution that sent everyone home satisfied. It isn't inconsequential that it started with Sam Mewis, someone yet to play her first minutes in a major tournament.
Mewis scored the first two goals for the U.S., the second time in the midfielder's 48 games with the national team that she scored multiple goals. Carli Lloyd provided the final goal, the 108th in an international career that began when Mewis was in middle school.
But for much of the afternoon, Mewis' first-half goal looked like it might be all the Americans managed against an opponent that showed increasingly little interest in possession, let alone possession with intent to score. Missing three of its best players because of their professional commitments abroad, South Africa set out to defend en masse behind the ball.
"That's a challenging thing, I don't care what level you are," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. "That's challenging to break down teams that are organized and get low and get a lot of numbers in the box."
For a team that itself shares a World Cup group with the likes of Germany and Spain, that plan might have been South Africa's own sort of practice for what's ahead. Defense first may also be what the U.S. sees from Chile and Thailand in its own group in France next month.
It may even be what the U.S. sees from the other team in its group, a Swedish team ranked among the best in the world. Because more to the point, Sunday was not altogether unlike the game that eliminated the U.S. from the most recent Olympics before the medal round. Albeit that defensive strategy was employed by a more talented Swedish team with far more counterattacking intent than Sunday's opponent.
"The things that teams throw at you know now, the things that you have to adapt to, the things that you see -- I would hazard to say a lot of that wasn't there five years ago," Ellis said. "When Sweden did it to us in the Olympics, it left a mark on me, in terms of we've got to make sure we have players that can break teams down. Because when there's no space in behind, you have to problem solve in a different way."
The first half, and to some degree the first 60 minutes, was not a master class in how to do that problem solving. Ellis said the team looked "sloppy." Veteran defender Kelley O'Hara noted that they struggled to get people into the box. No one tried to pretend it was perfect. Against an opponent that was committed but hardly impenetrable, touches were off, crosses too heavy or too light, and rhythm missing.
Yet the U.S. still went into halftime with a lead, if not a fully satisfying one, because of what two World Cup rookies, Mewis and Rose Lavelle, produced in the 37th minute.
Tobin Heath found Lavelle with a pass in a pocket of space in the center channel and between South African lines. Lavelle dribbled past one defender, then drew two more players toward her as she continued forward. That movement, in turn, left Mewis in space with only one defender to worry about at the top of the box. A quick feint to the left forced the defender to overcommit, and Mewis shot the other direction, finding the corner of the net.
Amidst an otherwise messy half, two World Cup rookies broke out of the bunker.
"Something we were talking about was just more central runs and more penetrating runs," Mewis said. "So I think Rose found me kind of making a penetrating run and I just tried to find an angle. I think that we'll grow from that and just keep trying to create chances. I think this team usually creates a ton of chances, so it was actually a really important challenge for us to face something like that."
Mewis played more minutes than any outfield player save Becky Sauerbrunn in 2017, as the national team began to retool in search of those things Ellis felt were missing against Sweden in the Olympics. But injuries slowed her progress in 2018, when she made just two starts for the U.S. and played fewer than 300 minutes. Sunday's performance was the continuation of a strong start to 2019 for a 26-year-old who is already among the best players in the NWSL and indispensable in league champion North Carolina's success.
"Sammy's confidence just grows and grows and grows with match play and experience she gets out there," Ellis said. "She's a dynamic player that can impact a game. When you go to a World Cup, your midfield -- you need to have players that can score goals from distance, that can get in the box that can, obviously, play-make. I think there is versatility in Sam."
Mewis may not be among the starters when the U.S. gets to France, her place in the three-player line dependent on the health of Lindsey Horan, who was in uniform Sunday but didn't play as a precautionary measure because of injury. Or Mewis may start in some games but not others. What matters is that the U.S. would be comfortable with her in the starting lineup, just as it would be comfortable with Tierna Davidson, Crystal Dunn, Lavelle, Mallory Pugh and others preparing for their first World Cup.
After three years of auditioning, those players now know there is faith in them.
"People don't really seem to understand our environment -- we're basically in tryout mode every year, every camp I would say, until a major roster needs to be named," Dunn said this week. "This is that time that it's no longer tryout mode but more so this is our team. This is our 23 that is going to the World Cup and hopefully hoist that trophy up at the end. So I think there is that shift of, OK, you can breathe a little bit. Not get complacent, but at the same time, feel like I've accomplished something and I should feel really happy where I am."
It's worth noting that an afternoon that finished so well for Mewis began with a misstep. She let an opportunity slip away in the opening minute, unable to make good contact on a ball that Heath sent across the box and that could easily have found its way into the back of the net. Mewis misplayed her share of moments in that sloppy first half. But when Lavelle split the defense and gave her teammate an opportunity, Mewis calmly gave the U.S. the lead.
"When she's comfortable," Ellis said, "that's when you get the best out of her."
Less than a month away from the opening game in France, Mewis looked comfortable. So although Sunday was a largely forgettable affair for fans, that doesn't mean it wasn't useful.
"I think everyone on this team has been through adversity," Mewis said. "All of our journeys have been amazing in the fact that they've led us here."