It was a relatively fast and smooth start for the United States as they kicked off against New Zealand in the first of a two-game friendly series. Jill Ellis put her taem in a 4-3-3 and let her midfield triangle of Julie Ertz, Sam Mewis, and Lindsey Horan mix and match as the game’s flow dictated. Ertz was nominally the DM, but she had no problem pushing higher while Mewis dropped.
Mewis looked quite good for most of the first half, doing a great job as the fulcrum in the middle allowing the team to turn around her into the box. Megan Rapinoe was often drifting all by her lonesome high on the left for the first 20 minutes or so and she was a frequent target for both the midfield and the defense, angling balls towards her for a switch from deep. Unfortunately Rapinoe wasn’t that efficient with the ball at her feet, so many of those chances ended up in turnovers.
Ertz opened the scoring in the 16’ on one of her many forays forward, waiting right in front of the goal to finish a ball brought down by the head of Lindsey Horan.
New Zealand tried to adjust, now swarming Rapinoe any time she touched the ball on the left side, but then the next US goal came from the right, as Taylor Smith fed Mal Pugh - one of several great little feeds from Smith in the first half - who hit the cross for Rapinoe. Rapinoe was actually once again wide open in the box, but her header skipped off the post, only to have Ertz make a late run in the box and finish it with confidence, making it 2=0 in the 24’.
The United States cooled off a little bit after that, although the midfield was clearly in control for most of it, while the defense found themselves under very little pressure. If New Zealand managed to put a ball into space, there was usually no one there for it, and the rest was easily cut out by Sauerbrunn and Dahlkemper. A better team might have punished the US for some occasionally sloppy play in the midfield, like a bad giveaway from Mewis in the 33’, but New Zealand gave the US time and space to recover from their errors.
Still, the Ferns did put up some resistance on the wings when challenged on the dribble by Rapinoe or Smith, but it wasn’t nearly enough to prevent lots of crosses and diagonals. Lindsey Horan almost got her head to several balls in the air - credit New Zealand for keeping her tightly marked on those - and Julie Ertz very nearly finished her hat trick in the 42’ after a diagonal from Kelley O’Hara didn’t quite get to Horan’s forehead and dropped in the box with NZL goalkeeper Erin Naylor off her line.
The US was best in the first half when they looked for the tidy pass and quick off the ball movement; most of their searching long balls ended in a reset. But that passing and movement was quite good, very rusty opponent notwithstanding, and the fluidity of the midfield between Mewis and Ertz was very nice.
The United States started the second half once again trying to release forwards early as Naeher tried to quickly distribute a save for Mal Pugh. But they had to pause as Taylor Smith left the field with an injury from a collision, leading to a sub on for Sofia Huerta, getting her first cap for the United States after being granted a one-time switch of federation from Mexico.
Huerta went into the right back role for Smith and was a little shaky there, as you might expect from someone who was just converted from forward, the position she’s played and played well for the Chicago Red Stars. You could see that hesitation come out in her play as Huerta very often looked for Christen Press in the front line, although once again long balls went begging.
The United States made a big triple sub in the 60’ with Christen Press, Allie Long, and Crystal Dunn coming on for Rapinoe, Mewis, and Pugh. Long went into the midfield next to Ertz while Dunn went in at right forward and Press took the center spot for the forwards, having the team continue to work in a 4-3-3. They stayed that way when Morgan Brian entered in the 73’ for Lindsey Horan in a like-for-like sub. Dunn looked quite rusty on the night, to be expected as she isn’t deep in her club season like the rest of the WNT players who ply their trades in NWSL. She and Huerta tried to combine a few times, but it wasn’t the same as Smith and Pugh.
Still, New Zealand continued to give the United States way too much respect, backing off of their pushes forward to give them plenty of time and space and allowing a lot of switching to pull them wide and clear up some of the congestion in front of goal. To their credit, they didn’t stop trying to push forward, and broke out of their half more and more, until in the 74’ Ali Riley was able to serve a great ball in for Hannah Wilkinson, who was on target in the middle of three defenders and beat Alyssa Naeher, who didn’t judge her timing off of her line quite right. Naeher collided with Kelley O’Hara, who was taken off as a precaution for Casey Short. O’Hara had a good 77 minutes in her 100th cap, offering numbers up and some good service into the box.
New Zealand pushed out again as the game went on, trying to capitalize more on bad US passes, clearly feeling energized after Wilkinson dragged them within a one-goal deficit. But Huerta finally looked up for a non-Press forward and saw Alex Morgan lingering pretty much alone. Her ball fell very well for Morgan, who danced to earn herself just enough space to bury the ball at an angle and make it 3-1 in the 80’. It was a classic Morgan goal, scored at a steep angle under pressure, but it wasn’t a surprise by any means to Orlando Pride fans as Morgan has really hit her stride there.
The midfield continued to hunt for the quick, sharp passes from the first half that would help them open up the New Zealand defense and they put on plenty of pressure in the last 10 minutes, but it was not to be. Christen Press had a decent opportunity in the 85’ as she maneuvered to find herself just enough space to shoot far post - as much classically Press as the third goal was classically Morgan - but the ball went wide. Full time ended at 3-1 for the United States.
It was a fun game, no doubt. The starting midfield three of Horan, Ertz, and Mewis was very fluid, although certainly not operating under any kind of real pressure. Alex Morgan looks healthy and crisp and Taylor Smith continues to make a case for claiming the starting right back position. But fun is all the game was - in a more serious game, there were definitely mistakes that could have been punished, from losing 1v1 battles to sloppy passing. In a more serious game, the defensive line would not have been pushed nearly to the edge of the attacking third, only having to the drop to the halfway line to recover. So we can look forward to the second of these friendlies and maybe use them as a gauge to see who’s completely returned from injury (Lavelle, Brian, Harris, take your pick), but there are a couple of much sterner tests yet to come.