The U.S. women’s national team is the champion of the inaugural SheBelieves Cup, but coach Jill Ellis won’t care about that.
What’s more important to the women’s head coach as the months tick down until the Rio Olympics was how her team played against some of the world’s best squads.
And what they need to do moving forward.
While each of the tournament’s three games offered different challenges to scrutinize, Wednesday’s 2-1 result gave the U.S. women an opportunity to play from behind, something that hasn’t happened this calendar year.
German midfielder Anja Mittag tagged a shot from about 25 yards out that skipped on the uneven field at FAU Stadium in Boca Raton, Florida, and past an outstretched Hope Solo. It was the first goal the United States had allowed since Dec. 16, when China defeated the U.S. 1-0 in Abby Wambach’s final contest.
But it was a good test of the USWNT’s mettle.
About six minutes later, U.S. forward Alex Morgan brought an initial pass into the box from Meghan Klingenberg down with ease then knocked the ball over the top of her defender into a one-timer that zoomed past German goalkeeper Almuth Schult. The goal showed the type of skill Morgan hadn’t displayed since her injury prior to the World Cup; a definite positive for Ellis.
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Six minutes later Samantha Mewis gave the United States what was ultimately its game-winning goal with a long shot that took advantage of the poor field conditions and bounced under a diving Schult.
The spirited — and quick — comeback was inspiring since Germany came into the contest as the world’s No. 2 team and had beaten both France and England in its previous matches.
But it wasn’t all gravy for the United States. For the third time in as many games, the U.S. struggled some on defense. In the case of Mittag’s goal, there were three defenders around Mittag but none stepped in to stop the shot. On the other side of the ball, the United States had some trouble finishing earlier in the game. Christen Press had two opportunities straight to goal and decided to cut the ball back and work for a better shot that never materialized.
But, in terms of gauging what it’s going to take to become the first women’s team to win the World Cup and an Olympic gold medal in the same cycle, this was a pretty good start. Elli still has to cut her roster down to 18 players, which was probably part of the reason why she used five different starters Wednesday than she had previously in this tournament.
And as of right now, the USWNT does have many friendlies remaining. They’ll play back-to-back games against Colombia in April and Ellis mentioned a game against Japan, the World Cup runner-up, was in the works. Japan did not qualify for Rio.
Most of the team will return to their professional leagues while youngster Mallory Pugh will go back to high school, which plays its season in the spring.
So while the Rio Games are still five months away, the United States has a few kinks to work out, but is already in fine form to claim its fourth consecutive gold medal.