The United States Women’s National Team (U.S. WNT) faced Colombia in the first of two friendlies this week, walking away with a convincing 7-0 shutout of the South American team.
Six players scored for the U.S., including 17-year-old phenom Mallory Pugh, Tobin Heath, Christen Press and Allie Long.
Co-Captain Carli Lloyd and Crystal Dunn also scored one goal apiece, their eighth each for the year. Their goals put them in a three-way tie with Alex Morgan for most goals this year.
Morgan was sidelined for the night’s match along with Morgan Brian, both of whom suffered minor injuries during preseason training with their National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) club teams.
The loss of these two starters forced Head Coach Jill Ellis to be a little more creative with her lineup. Instead of the 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 formations that Ellis has preferred for much of the year, Ellis went with a 4-3-3. Long started in the midfield in place of Brian, while Dunn started up top in place of Morgan and Heath was pushed up to play striker.
It will be interesting to see if Ellis returns to her usual starting XI and formation for Sunday afternoon’s rematch since both Morgan and Brian are expected to be available for that game.
Despite the cold temperatures and frozen pitch, the U.S. WNT came out hot, quickly creating opportunities on goal and dominating play from the get-go.
Just minutes into the game, a heavily-defended Heath nutmegged Nataly Arias and dribbled past a tackle and into the box, where she passed the ball to Dunn. Trying to get a hold of the ball to stop the U.S. possession, goalkeeper Catalina Perez dove to the side, leaving the goal wide open. Dunn quickly settled the ball and fired off a shot, but Orianica Velasquez, who had stepped in goal until Perez could get back on her line, got her body in front of the ball and blocked the shot.
Moments later, Allie Long took her first shot of the night, launching a shot on goal that hit the crossbar and went out of play.
The U.S. WNT's first goal came in the 27’ when Dunn settled a pass from Lloyd, turned and maneuvered past a defender. Once she was near the penalty kick spot, Dunn rocketed the ball past Perez and into the back of the net to put the U.S. on the board.
Dunn’s goal set of a 12-minute scoring streak for the U.S., as just five minutes later, Long scored her first goal of the night. Midfielder Lindsey Horan gained possession of the left flank and centered the ball to Long, who was able to get back on sides and in position to head the ball into goal.
The U.S. quickly went up to 3-0 after a Mallory Pugh-goal, the second goal of her international career, just a minute later. Carli Lloyd tallied her second assist of the night with Pugh’s goal.
Pugh returned the favor in the 39’, sliding the ball in to Lloyd, who shot the ball off her left foot from just outside of the six, tallying the 87th goal of her career. The pair of goals gave Pugh and Lloyd their fifth assist each for 2016, tying them for most assists on the year. The United States ended the first half 4-0.
The start of the second half saw the first of many subs by Jill Ellis as Christen Press and Samantha Mewis came in for Pugh and Horan respectively.
Colombia, who was coached by Felipe Taborda, started the second half with the same lineup as the first, but the team came out of the locker room with new vigor, firing off a number of goals at U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo.
In the 61’, Diana Ospina took a shot on goal, but Solo came up with the easy save. Solo put the ball back into play, and Dunn came into possession on the right flank. She centered the ball and Tobin Heath got into position, easily volleying the ball for another U.S. goal.
The sixth goal of the night came off of a Tobin Heath corner kick. Heath sent in a low kick to Christen Press, who ran in from outside the 16 and got her left foot on it. Catalina Usme miscleared the ball, allowing Julie Johnston to head the ball over to Allie Long, who once again headed the ball past Perez for the brace.
After a series of substitutions that completely changed the American back line, saw Heather O’Reilly go in as right winger and shifted Heath to outside back, the U.S. once again took possession of the ball.
Midway through the second half, Christen Press placed a ball between the posts, but she was called off sides and the goal was negated. The U.S. quickly regained possession, and Dunn placed the ball at Press’s feet, giving her another chance at a goal. Press bent the ball around Perez to score the seventh and final goal for the U.S.
Surprisingly, Allie Long was by far the standout player of the night. A midfielder for the Portland Thorns FC, Long was last capped with the U.S. WNT back in 2014 and has been absent from national team camps since January 2015. With much to prove to Head Coach Jill Ellis, Long was an important part of the night’s attack, scoring two goals (her first and second international goals) and putting several more shots on goal.
The connection between Long and fellow Thorns Heath and Lindsey Horan brought some much-needed chemistry to the field, creating consistent movement and opportunity off the flank. Long also played a much-needed role in set pieces—something the team has needed work with since the loss of Lauren Holiday and Megan Rapinoe—taking some free kicks and being a target on corners. Although she is often criticized for being overly aggressive when playing for Portland, Long looked composed throughout much of the match, despite the physical play and pressure from Colombia.
Long definitely made a strong case for herself to not only return to the starting lineup on Sunday, but to be called back into future national team camps as the team continues to prepare for the Olympics.
Colombia, who had not played together since last June's World Cup round of 16 match against the U.S., looked very little like the team that drew Mexico and toppled France in that tournament. That team was speedy, tricky and physical.
While the physicality of Colombia remained intact, overall the team looked rusty and out of sync, causing the frustration levels of the Colombian players to be high for a good portion of the game. Orianica Velasquez received a yellow card in the 18' after a tackle from behind on Tobin Heath, a foul born out of frustration despite the early time of play. Yisela Cuesta was also issued a yellow card in the second half, when Colombia looked tired and already defeated.
In comparison, the U.S looked better than they have looked in a long time. Since the start of 2016, Ellis has faced much criticism about the team’s quality of play. The U.S. WNT has looked inconsistent and inexperienced, and there was a lack of chemistry on the field. This is no doubt the result of the loss of players to retirement, injury and pregnancy combined with Ellis’s inclination to bring more youth to the team.
Many fans also blame the lack of chemistry on field to Ellis’s lineup choices and new playing style. For much of 2016, players like Ali Krieger and Heather O’Reilly have been left sitting on the bench (or off the roster altogether, as was the case with O’Reilly during the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying tournament) in favor of Kelley O’Hara and Mallory Pugh.
Ellis also seems to be utilizing O’Hara and Meghan Klingenberg as wingbacks, a style of play that differs greatly from the "brick wall defense" executed to near perfection during the World Cup. While O’Hara and Klingenberg are both versatile players with the speed necessary of a wingback, their participation in the attack has often created holes in the defense and messes that co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn and goalkeeper Hope Solo have had to clean up.
However, in Wednesday night’s game, much of the criticism about the U.S. WNT was put to rest. The players were maintaining possession, passing the ball with more accuracy and making runs to create options on the play. The team also increased their speed and tempo for much of the game, one-touching the ball to each other, delivering quick passes and quickly restarting on free kicks.
While the score is reminiscent of a Victory Tour match, the quality of play was not. Instead of constantly playing out of position and even knocking each other out of the way in attempts of scoring goals, the team stayed mostly in position and was much less selfish on the ball.
Kelley O'Hara was the weakest player in the match, something rarely said about the veteran defender. Several times she was caught too high after joining in the attack, forcing the midfielders to drop back to defend until she could get back into position. Becky Sauerbrunn also often had to step up in O'Hara's absence several times, something that has been seen ever since Ellis switched to a more wingback approach.
O'Hara, who is known for her speed and endurance, also got beat by Ospina in the second half, allowing Ospina to move into space and take a shot on goal. Luckily Solo was there to easily save the shot, keeping Colombia off the scoreboard. Solo earned her the 98th shutout of her career with the match.
The U.S. WNT is set to play Colombia again on Sunday, April 10 at 2 p.m. EST in Chester, Pennsylvania. The game will be aired on ESPN.
Scoring Summary: 1 2 F
USA 4 3 7
COL 0 0 0
Subs not used : Alyssa Naeher
Not available: Alex Morgan, Morgan Brian, Ashlyn Harris
Note: Jaelene Hinkle and Ashley Sanchez were removed from the roster prior to the match. Hinkle suffered an ankle injury and returned to her club team, and Sanchez left the team because of school obligations.
Colombia WNT Lineup: Catalina Perez; Natalia Gaitan ( C ), Nataly Arias, Leidy Asprilla (Carolina Arbelaez, 78’), Orianica Velasquez; Isabella Echeverri (Maria Jaramillo, 90’), Liana Salazar (Carolina Pineda, 68’), Yoreli Rincon (Yisela Cuesta, 65’), Diana Ospina (Tatiana Ariza, 84’), Leicy Santos, Catalina Usme (Regnier, 87’)
Subs not used: Paula Forero