USWNT beats Australia in high-scoring mixed bag of a World Cup tune-up

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/olympics/rio-2016/a/1124331/" data-ylk="slk:Alex Morgan">Alex Morgan</a> (13) scored her 100th career international goal, and she may need to keep it up if the USWNT is going to find success in France. (Getty)
Alex Morgan (13) scored her 100th career international goal, and she may need to keep it up if the USWNT is going to find success in France. (Getty)

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — Fans of the United States women’s national team probably wanted to see the Americans dominate Australia, the last top team the U.S. will face before the World Cup this summer.

And they did, sort of. But form matters more than results this close to the World Cup, and Thursday’s 5-3 win was a mixed bag as the world’s top-ranked team scored some pretty goals but also conceded its fair share against the sixth-ranked Matildas.

Megan Rapinoe gave the U.S. a lead it would not relinquish on an individual moment of brilliance, and hometown kid Mallory Pugh added the eventual game-winner in front of a packed crowd of 17,264 at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.

Alex Morgan open the scoring in the 14th minute on a splendid bit of skill and determination. She bodied off Clare Polkinghorne and then cut past Alanna Kennedy before finishing in the far corner.

It was Morgan’s 100th career goal for the USWNT, making her the seventh American to ever hit that mark.

Lisa De Vanna equalized for Australia 15 minutes later. Caitlin Foord passed to De Vanna on the left and U.S. right back Emily Sonnett failed to close down the space, giving De Vanna carte blanche to fire past goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher.

Foord then put Australia up 2-1 by spinning around Samatha Mewis and finishing past Naeher. In the 53rd minute, the U.S. drew level as Sonnett played a cross to the back post and Tobin Heath was there to slot it home.

After Rapinoe's sensational strike, Pugh scored just 38 seconds after coming on as a substitute.

Australian star Sam Kerr scored on a header in the 81st minute, but Pugh scored the final goal of the night by running on to a loose ball in stoppage time and chipping keeper Lydia Williams.

The USWNT has just three more tune-up matches left until the World Cup in France, all against teams ranked No. 19 or lower.

Here are three takeaways from the match.

The midfield spacing needs fine-tuning

The midfield trio of Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle and Julie Ertz may represent the best combination of attacking and defending midfield talent on the USWNT, but there’s still something not quite right with how it has looked.

This graphic from data analyst Paul Carr helps paint the picture:

Notice all those touches along the flanks and the sparser number of dots in the middle? That’s because the USWNT wasn’t really playing through the middle of the field.

The U.S. attack tended to go along the flanks — on the right through Heath or along the left through Rapinoe — or they just played the ball very directly, lobbing up field to Morgan. Those are fine options, but if the U.S. really wants to hold onto possession and dictate tempo, they need to play through the central midfield.

“This year we’ve had some great challenges from other teams that have asked a lot of questions of us, and it’s really just about getting on the same page,” Ertz said after the game. “What we’re trying to do now is learn as much as we can. We’re just coming together and getting on the same page, and each game, each training session, we’re getting close to that.”

The U.S. needs to stop conceding so many goals

The winning result shouldn’t brush aside the fact that the U.S. conceded three goals. Counting on the attack to score four or more goals every week is not a viable strategy.

Thursday wasn’t an isolated incident, either: The U.S. has now conceded multiple goals in four of the last six games, indicating a pattern.

“We cannot be letting three goals in and, just in general, we’ve been letting a lot of goals in,” Rapinoe said. “Not happy about that at all. We’re happy about the result but we know it needs to be so much better.”

Julie Ertz (8) knows the USWNT needs to improve both defensively and in the midfield. (Associated Press)
Julie Ertz (8) knows the USWNT needs to improve both defensively and in the midfield. (Associated Press)

Ertz echoed Rapinoe’s comments, but pointed out that until the team arrives in France for the World Cup, it’s a learning experience.

“It has to be addressed,” Ertz said. “It’s unacceptable and we know that and to concede three is not good at all and I’m not happy about it either. But we’re really trying to implement a lot of things right now to figure out the best way to go into France and that comes to risk-reward.”

The Morgan-led attack will be key in France

Even though Morgan has been in a relatively quiet spell — she hadn’t scored in the last few matches after finishing the USWNT’s 2018 qualifying campaign with 24 goals in 24 — she was key for the U.S. in Colorado.

Morgan scored her 100th career goal, only the third USWNT player to reach that mark before her 30th birthday.

“It’s been a long journey on this team, and to get into the triple-digits is an accomplishment I don’t take lightly,” Morgan said. “My parents and my family were in the stands today and they’ve been following my games making sure they’re here to celebrate my 100th. It was important for me to point them out during the game after I scored because they are what encourages me and keeps me going.”

Morgan, of course, is flanked by Rapinoe and Heath, who have been on stellar runs of their own, plus the likes of Pugh and Christen Press off the bench. The attacking line may have to score a lot of goals if the U.S. keeps conceding at such a high rate — but at least they’ve got some darn good goal-scorers.

Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.

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