The United States and Japan traded second-half goals en route to a 1-1 draw in the opening match for both teams in the 2014 Algarve Cup.
Even though the Americans were able to control possession and generated more chances, the finishing ability was lacking and it allowed Japan to steal a point. The U.S. must elevate its level of play in the final two Group B fixtures to reach the championship match.
Let's check out how the match played out at the Stadium Bela Vista in Parchal, Portugal and handed out grades for the starters on both sides.
Group B Standings
The United States almost opened the scoring just over a minute into the match. After Christen Press had an attempt blocked, the loose ball was picked up and finished by Carli Lloyd, then she was deemed offside to halt the early celebration.
It was a wake-up call for the Japanese squad, which immediately started pushing more players back to defend against the American attack. Even without Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan, the group pushed forward aggressively.
That was probably by design from head coach Tom Sermanni. U.S. Soccer's official site passed along comments from the manager after he named the tournament squad and he said these matches would be a very good test for his side:
The group we're in at the Algarve Cup will probably be the most significant test since I've come aboard and a different kind of challenge as we will be playing teams that have the belief and aim to come out to attack us and beat us. The dynamics of these games will be different than some of the more recent matches, and that's something that we want, that we need and that the players are looking forward to.
The Americans continued to pressure the Japan back line with constant pressure in the final third. Sydney Leroux had a chance just inside the quarter-hour mark, but the shot was parried by Erina Yamane and cleared off the line.
As Japan pushed more numbers back to withstand the pressure, the absence of Wambach and Morgan became more obvious. Wambach wasn't selected for the starting lineup in the opener while Morgan is recovering from an ankle injury.
While the United States controlled the pace of play, it was missing the finishing touch that comes along with its two most dangerous strikers. Add in Japan's defensive style and the frustration began to mount for the U.S.
The final notable scoring opportunity of the half came as Heather O'Reilly found some rare space behind the Japanese defense and sent a hopeful ball across the mouth of goal. Leroux attempted to get a foot on the pass, but couldn't connect as it slid wide.
Following a more level start to the second 45 minutes, a mistake by Japan allowed the United States to break the deadlock just shy of the hour mark.
A pass was dropped back to Yamane, who had been terrific in net for the Japanese side to that point, but the inexperienced goalkeeper held the ball for one extra touch and it cost her. Leroux tracked her down, completed a perfectly timed slide and blocked the ball into the net.
Oh my LORD! Leroux blocks a GK clear into the net! The USA is up 1-0! 59th minute!— U.S. Soccer WNT (@ussoccer_wnt) March 5, 2014
It was a bit of a fluky goal because the ball could have redirected anywhere on the attempted clearance. That said, Leroux deserves credit for sticking with the play and it was definitely a learning experience for the 23-year-old keeper.
The United States wasn't able to add to that lead despite good chances for O'Reilly and Leroux.
Japan took advantage of that by equalizing in the 82nd minute. Aya Miyama stepped up to take a free-kick from long range and beat Hope Solo to level the score.
As Fox Soccer Trax noted, it won't be a moment for the Solo highlight reel. She took a couple quick steps in the wrong direction and by the time she reacted to the hard shot all she could do is deflect it into the top corner.
Solo stepped right, then could not get back across and ball just got over her hands and flew into the net - won't like watching that replay— FOX Soccer Trax (@FOXSoccerTrax) March 5, 2014
It was an uncharacteristic error by the American goalkeeper and came at an inopportune time. The United States attack, which had slowed down as more players pushed back in an attempt to preserve the 1-0 lead, had to pick up the pace again.
Leroux, who generated at least a half dozen scoring opportunities in the match, had one last chance to grab the three points in the 89th minute. She worked her way into the box and tried to find the far corner with a shot from just outside the six-yard box, but missed.
Which team will win Group B?
Neither side could find the winner in the final few minutes.
Looking ahead, both teams will return to the pitch for their second match of group play on Friday. The United States will face another tricky test from Sweden while Japan faces off with Denmark, the weakest side in Group B.
In order to reach the final, which will pit the winners of Group A and B against each other, the Americans will probably need to win both of their remaining matches. Otherwise, it opens the door for Japan to advance by doing so.
Finding the finishing touch is the biggest key for the U.S. moving forward. It was absent in the opener.
2014 Algarve Cup
2014 Algarve Cup