The United States women’s national team (USWNT) defeated New Zealand, 3-1, in the first of two international friendlies thanks to a first-half brace by Julie Ertz. Alex Morgan scored the go-ahead goal deep in the second half to round out the scoring for the U.S.
Sky Blue FC defender Kelley O’Hara got the start at left back for her 100th cap, becoming the 36th USWNT player to hit the century mark. To honor the achievement, she was presented with a commemorative O’Hara 100 jersey in a pregame ceremony, and she wore a special captain’s armband for the match. Unfortunately the defender’s night came to an early end after a collision with U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher resulted in a knock to the head, forcing O’Hara to exit the game in the 76th minute.
Julie Ertz, who had continued to play at center back for the U.S. despite playing in the midfield for Chicago for most of the 2017 season, finally made the move to midfield for her country in tonight’s match. That move made a world of difference for the team, as her higher position on the field made her more potent in the attack. As a result, Ertz ended the night with a pair of goals, including the game winner, to show for it.
Ertz’s first goal came in the 16th minute after O’Hara sent a lofted diagonal ball to Lindsey Horan, who headed the ball short of goal. Ertz was there to clean it up, one-timing the ball past New Zealand netminder Erin Nayler. She got her second of the night less than 10 minutes later on a play that consisted of a 15-pass sequence involving nine different players. That U.S. possession nearly ended with Megan Rapinoe heading a shot in from the left side, but her shot deflected off the near post and rolled back into play, where Ertz again one-timed it past Nayler to put the U.S. up, two-nil.
The Ertz-led U.S. dominated the first half and had a several other chances on goal, including a near hat trick for the defender-turned-midfielder, but Ertz’s brace would be the only goals for either side before the first-half whistle. The Football Ferns came out much stronger in the final 45 minutes despite the game’s tempo slowing remarkably despite a full batch of U.S. subs. That may have been the result of the Colorado altitude, simple fatigue, or a combination, but few players looked quite as exhausted as New Zealand forward Hannah Wilkinson. The University of Tennessee alum didn’t let that take the fight out of her though, and she had a number of chances on goal before finally getting one back for the Ferns in the 75th minute.
With their lead reduced to one against a slightly more energized New Zealand side, the U.S. suddenly found themselves in a precarious situation, but not for long as Alex Morgan gave them another two-goal lead in the 80th minute. The goal-scoring play originated with a buildup out of the back before Sofia Huerta, who entered the game at right back in the 51st minute for the injured Taylor Smith, switched the field with a long ball to Morgan. The forward settled the ball, took a couple of touches to maneuver around a defender, and blasted off a left-footed shot that just eked under the crossbar for the U.S.’s third goal of the night and the 75th of Morgan’s international career.
Morgan’s goal was largely made possible by Chicago Red Stars midfielder/forward Sofia Huerta, making her USWNT debut after FIFA granted her a one-time change of association yesterday. The Mexican-American player was born and raised in the U.S. but played at the youth and senior levels for Mexico after failing to make the U.S.’s U-20 World Cup roster back in 2012. Huerta earned five caps for Mexico’s senior team, including the team’s 7-0 loss to the USWNT on September 3, 2013. That cap, along with tonight’s U.S. debut, makes Huerta the first player to take the field for and against the USWNT.
Although tonight’s result was not the 7-0 shutout that some fans have come to expect when the U.S. plays a lower-ranking opponent (New Zealand is ranked 20th in the world), the game itself was a vast improvement over much of the team’s post-Olympic play. Ertz’s contribution in the midfield was immediately noticeable (and effective), Megan Rapinoe was efficient in creating opportunities on goal, and Alex Morgan proved that she’s gotten her goal-scoring groove back. All in all, it was a USWNT performance that likely had many fans sighing in relief and maybe even feeling optimistic for once.
Hopefully the positive performances will continue when the USWNT closes out its two-game series against New Zealand on Tuesday, September 19, in Cincinnati. The match kicks off at 7:30 p.m. ET and will be televised on FS1.