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Alex Morgan hat trick lifts USA to 4-2 victory over Japan in Tournament of Nations opener

4 for you United States, you go United States.

2018 Tournament Of Nations: Japan v United States Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Starting XI: Alyssa Naeher, Crystal Dunn, Tierna Davidson, Abby Dahlkemper, Emily Sonnett, Morgan Brian, Julie Ertz, Lindsey Horan, Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Christen Press

The United States opened up its 2018 Tournament of Nations run against Japan looking a little wobbly, but still able to focus in moments. It was just enough to hang in there with a much more focused Japanese side that never gave up poking and prodding at the United States for the entire first half.

The US had some early looks, letting Crystal Dunn press high and collab with Megan Rapinoe to put the ball across the face of goal, but Alex Morgan was still calibrating at that point. Japan put their numbers in the middle, initially looking for balls over or through for Tanaka, who looked likely to peel off her defenders and snag one. Instead, she came up with an equalizer after Alex Morgan clicked with her wide players and scored in the 18’.

The two goals were somewhat emblematic of the stylistic differences playing out: the United States fumbling a little but still powering along, Japan patiently looking for the spaces and then turning up the pressure.

Dunn was more pinned back as Japan really tested her side of the defense, but the US shifted to Sonnett as the attacking fullback option, and eventually Dunn got her moment to press forward again. She put a ball into the box, Sonnett arrived late, and dropped a nice ball for Alex Morgan, who had too much space in front of goal and finished it to make it 2-1 in the 26’.

The rest of the half didn’t find much more coherence for the United States; the midfield was a choose your own adventure of Ertz, Horan, and Brian trading off positionally but not adjusting well in handing off who was pressing and who was dropping. Rapinoe was the big ball mover, taking over lots of space in front of the 18 or looking up to see Press in open space for a big diagonal. Otherwise there wasn’t a lot of consistent connection between the midfields and forwards.

The last big chance of the half was from Ertz as Alex Morgan’s header dropped the ball neatly into open space in front of goal. Ertz ran onto the ball and flubbed it right at the keeper.

Things turned around in the second half despite the US not really altering their overall style that much. What did change was McCall Zerboni coming on for Morgan Brian to start the half and immediately going full bumper car as she enforced her will in the midfield and set up some nice feeds for Morgan and Press. The US had much better spells of ball possession to start the half and wasn’t so choppy moving forward. The next sub was Tobin Heath in the 54’ for Press; Heath was another one who changed the pace and immediately made an impact, assisting Alex Morgan for her third goal of the night in the 56’.

Julie Ertz came out in the 64’ for Rose Lavelle, who returned to the pitch once again after another spell of rehab on her hamstring. She’s already been easing back into match fitness with the Washington Spirit and she looked fairly confident out there, initially playing in a bit of a 10 role, but drifting to the right as the midfield continued their mix ‘n match approach.

Lavelle helped set up a give-and-go with Megan Rapinoe in the 66’ that put in a fourth goal for the US, just about sealing Japan’s fate for the night.

Naeher had to make a big block in the 69’ on a point-blank shot in the box, and then narrowly escaped another attempt as Japan switched it up with a cross but put the resulting shot over. Then the United States made a big triple sub in the 73’, bringing on Carli Lloyd, Sam Mewis, and Casey short for Morgan, Horan, and Rapinoe. Dunn moved up to left forward with Lloyd at center forward and Mewis at left midfield and Short in her usual left back position. Japan scored three minutes later as Sakaguchi put Tobin Heath on the ground with some confident maneuvering and then floated in a hell of a ball from outside the box.

The US shifted into a 5-4-1 after that, bringing Dunn back on the left side, and they finished the game out to end it at 4-2.

It wasn’t the prettiest game from the United States; they often looked like a rough draft in some areas next to Japan’s more polished product, and yet they also pounced on nearly every chance. They absorbed Japan’s testing jabs and came back with a couple of nice combinations, putting the game away with several top individual efforts.

Up next: Australia, who might be a much bigger question mark if the US midfield continues to teeter not-quite-on-balance.

USA vs Australia
July 29
Rentschler Field, East Hartford, Conn.