The screams and cheers that had filled the air all day followed members of the US Women’s World Cup team as they left the pitch at PayPal Park on Sunday with a bye win over Wales and a boost in confidence – two key points on their preflight checklist.
In their last game before the opening game of the World Cup on July 21 against Vietnam in Auckland, New Zealand, they had some basic goals. “No injuries and I’m concentrating on some details,” said Bellflower’s Savannah DeMelo, who earned her first international cap with a dynamic performance as a second-half substitute in America’s 2-0 win over Wales.
“I think we did that and I think we’re going into the tournament with a good win.”
Although at times it was more of a struggle than an artistic triumph, at least until Trinity Rodman pumped adrenaline into her offense, repelling a skillful pass from Sophia Smith in the 76th minute and flicking a shot into the right post in the 87th minute, then Were they? There could be more benefit from struggling and adapting and giving the youngsters crucial minutes than coming out of a romp with an experienced line-up.
Wales didn’t qualify for the World Cup but the side worked hard in a friendly nonetheless, but both sides didn’t just pick up a few bruises. Wales played well in their defensive third of the field in the first half, keeping the USA scoreless. “I think it frustrated us a little bit,” said forward Alex Morgan, who was replaced by Rodman early in the second half. “We’re going to see all the different styles at the World Cup and have someone like Wales today.”
The Americans need to be more aggressive and up the tempo and tempo, coach Vlatko Andonovski told them at half-time. The inclusion of Rodman and DeMelo made that possible – and amplified the screams of the sold-out crowd of 18,000.
“Savannah deserves everything. She definitely deserves to be at the World Cup,” said defender Sofia Huerta. “And Trinity has obviously performed well over the last few years and to have scored two goals ahead of the World Cup is just good timing for her. We will definitely need both of them at some point.”
The instinctive bond between Rodman and Smith on Sunday boded well for future goal collaborations.
“Wales were organized and disciplined, they defended well and made it really difficult for us,” said Andonovski. “But Trinity came in and had a job to do and she was one of the players trying to pick up the pace. And we’ve seen the pace change dramatically and of course the second goal is a world class goal in my opinion.”
Their success gives Andonovski more options to consider while several players continue to recover from injuries.
Versatile Angel City midfielder Julie Ertz, held back by a hamstring injury, was cleared for the game and could conceivably have come on Sunday if it made sense, Andonovski said. Creative midfielder Rose Lavelle (knee) was also suspended. Megan Rapinoe, who announced on Saturday that her fourth World Cup will be her last and that she will retire at the end of the NWSL season, also sat on Sunday as she recovers from a calf injury.
“Rose and Pino are still in the development phase,” said Andonovski. “They are healthy and now it’s just a matter of preparing them physically for the games.”
Rodman said the team has begun to come together, although it has only been less than two weeks since it came together. Players have more time to socialize at their Auckland training base and distractions are few.
“We hadn’t played each other in months so this was our first game so to speak and I’m really glad we upped the ante in the second half,” said Rodman. “Every game is a test and every time we’re on the field together we build that chemistry.”
Sometimes that takes patience. “Obviously it’s a younger squad this year,” said Rodman, one of 14 World Cup rookies, “but I think the mix of experience and youth was really good to learn from each other because I think as much as we do. “ can learn from them, they can also learn from us.”
For Andonovski, the fact that his side had to step up to beat Wales was a reminder that this tournament, now expanded to 32 teams, could pose some tricky challenges.
As observers say the rest of the world is catching up with the two-time world champions and No. 1 in the US rankings, he sees the biggest improvement in the lower-ranked teams, pointing to No. 2 Germany’s recent loss to Zambia by a mere 2-1 Victory over Vietnam.
“The world catching up is Wales, Vietnam, Zambia and Portugal,” he said. “These are the countries that are catching up. The 7-0 or 8-0 games are gone. And we can see that. And we prepare ourselves so that we don’t go into a game like this with the mentality, ‘Oh, you know, it’s going to be easy.’ No game is going to be easy. At the moment we know that Vietnam will not be easy.”
The USA and Wales players swapped shirts after Sunday’s game, sparking double disagreement from autograph seekers who saw Morgan’s or Rapinoe’s name on the back of a well-known shirt and thought they’d hit the jackpot, only to then to discover an unfamiliar face. The US women could afford to leave these jerseys behind. They packed their hopes and dreams with heightened optimism as they embarked on the long journey they hope will culminate in a third consecutive World Cup. Now it’s up to the rest of the world to catch them.