When Vlatko Andonovski left the Eden Park stadium on Saturday after his team’s first World Cup match, he was sitting in the front left seat of a red US soccer minivan. In the States, that would be the driver’s seat. But in New Zealand, cars drive on the left-hand side of the road, so Andonovski was only a passenger.
It’s an apt metaphor, as how far the coach and his USA team get at this Women’s World Cup will be largely determined by half a dozen young players untested on this stage; Andonovski is simply there.
So far the children are doing well. After Sophia Smith scored twice in the first half and set up another goal in the second half on her World Cup debut, the USA beat Vietnam 3-0 in an opening performance that was more clumsy than skillful, more sloppy than sensational.
“It’s always great to get a win,” said Andonovski. “Of course we came here to win the game. And we did. Unfortunately, we didn’t take all the opportunities, great opportunities, that we created. And we will definitely focus on that.”
It is clear that this journey will be bumpy.
Although the USA defeated Vietnam 28-0, they only had seven of those attempts on target, with many of the remaining shots going over, around and outside the goal frame. Alex Morgan even sent the goalkeeper a smack in the legs in the first half and for the first time in her international career was unable to take a penalty.
And while that was good enough to beat a Vietnamese side in their first World Cup appearance, it probably won’t be good enough to beat the Netherlands in Wednesday’s second group stage game. And it certainly won’t be enough to go far in the toughest and most competitive roster at the Women’s World Cup in history.
Still, Morgan, who is entering the tournament for the fourth time, isn’t worried.
“The way the first World Cup game went, the last one won’t go the same way,” she said. “Teams have to have time to get into the World Cup. With so many players having their first World Cup experience, it was a good start for us.
“Could we have scored more goals? Naturally. But we had a lot of players who played extremely well, we had a lot of players who were in a World Cup for the first time. We will build on that.”
In many ways, Saturday’s game went exactly as Andonovski had hoped. He pushed midfielder Julie Ertz into the back, where she hadn’t started since the last World Cup opener four years ago, and she responded with the best afternoon of the four US defenders. Looking to give veterans Megan Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle, who were out through injury, some playing time, he had 28 minutes each. And he especially wanted to test his young players, bringing six World Cup rookies into the starting XI and bringing two more from the bench.
All showed strong plays, especially Smith and USC grad Savannah DeMelo, who made strong contributions on both sides.
“It was good to just get a game going,” Smith said. “I felt all the emotions and didn’t really know what to expect. I don’t usually get nervous, but I was nervous before this game. I mean, it’s a World Cup.”
Smith, who is expected to be the star of this tournament, scored the opening goal in the 14th minute. The sequence began with Lindsey Horan sending a ball forward for Morgan, whose back heel pass landed Smith down the left wing in a full sprint. She then passed two defenders before firing a left-footed shot through the legs of Vietnamese goalkeeper Than Thi Kim Thanh.
Smith doubled the lead in the final moment of first-half injury time, a left-footed shot firing through traffic and again through the goalie’s legs. But their most impressive play of the day was the pass that sealed the winning goal in the 77th minute. After getting closer to the end line, drawing the attention of a few defenders and goalkeeper Thanh, Smith sent a right-footed pass from a difficult angle to a lone Horan who had nothing but an open net to shoot at from the center of the box.
“It’s always great that the first game really settles everyone’s nerves and gets the three points and then we go through,” said Horan, the team’s captain. “You get the win, the three goals were great. But we could have finished many more of our opportunities.
“It is what it is. We’ll go back and see what we could have done better.”
Perhaps. But the review of this feature will likely leave Andonovski with more questions than answers. Although the USA played Vietnam for most of the game, the players were far too altruistic and allowed free shots to stage a teammate. At least a dozen times this resulted in a misguided cross into a crowded box, while Morgan, Rapinoe and Horan fired a total of 12 shots over the course of the game but only managed one on frame.
They won’t get away with wasting so many chances against a good team.
“We had to get a little bit better with the last shot,” said Andonovski. “Usually it’s the last round. I would say now it was the last shot.”
Before climbing into the passenger seat of the minivan and driving to the team hotel, the coach smiled faintly. He wasn’t sure how long the ride would take or how bumpy it would be, but at least he knew where he was going and who was driving. The same could be said about his team.
“Actually, I don’t think anyone on the staff is concerned,” he said. “We are very, very encouraged.”