For the second match in a row, the United States escaped with a 1-0 win after an otherwise sluggish performance, beating France in Nashville, Tennessee, in the 2016 SheBelieves Cup.
The legend of 17-year-old Mallory Pugh continues to grow. Not only was she one of the standout American performers, but she also provided the assist for Alex Morgan's winner in stoppage time. Pugh's short through ball hit Morgan perfectly in stride, and the Orlando Pride forward finished with a shot past goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi.
According to ESPN's Paul Carr, Morgan historically saves some of her best soccer for the French:
Alex Morgan gives #USWNT a 1-0 win over France w/ a stoppage-time goal.— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) March 6, 2016
Her 6th career goal vs France, tied for her most vs any country.
Pugh's future was one of the biggest questions in American women's soccer until her father confirmed to Morgan Dzakowic of the Denver Post she'd be heading to UCLA. MLSSoccer.com's Charles Boehm doesn't envision Pugh being a Bruin for too long:
Mark it, #USWNT nation: Mal Pugh isn't playing four years of college soccer.— Charles Boehm (@cboehm) March 6, 2016
The U.S. struggled earlier in the week against England and were somewhat lucky to walk away with a 1-0 win. They looked a little more fluid in the attack Sunday, but that seemed to come at the cost of defensive solidarity. France should've been 2-0 up after the first 15 minutes of the match.
Forward Eugenie Le Sommer had a great chance to put her side ahead 1-0 in the 11th minute after getting on the end of a cross from team-mate Elodie Thomis. Le Sommer whiffed on her attempted shot, though, and the U.S. cleared away the danger.
Then, in the 15th minute, U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd nearly knocked the ball into her own net on an attempted clearance. The ball caromed off the left post and into the path of France forward Marie-Laure Delie. Hope Solo saved Delie's point-blank shot, and Le Sommer's effort off the rebound was deflected high over the crossbar:
As WTATennis.com's Courtney Nguyen joked, it's a good thing Lloyd didn't display the finishing touch she had at the 2015 Women's World Cup:
Continuing my theory that Carli Lloyd has come back to earth, couldn’t even net the own goal there.— Courtney Nguyen (@FortyDeuceTwits) March 6, 2016
That wasn't the end of the French threat, as a free-kick from defender Amel Majri hit the crossbar in the 31st minute.
The United States created a few goalscoring opportunities in the first 45 minutes, but France otherwise dominated the opening frame. The Guardian's Caitlin Murray is beginning to notice a trend:
Rather than continuing to press the U.S. into the second half, manager Philippe Bergeroo opted to instead have his players sit back. The French showed little urgency and lost all of the attacking verve that had nearly helped them go ahead in the match.
Likewise, U.S. coach Jill Ellis opted against making any half-time substitutions—one match after second-half substitute Crystal Dunn scored the lone goal against England. The tactic continued well into the second half, much to the dismay of Equalizer Soccer's Jennifer Gordon:
Only 1 change in the lineup from Thursday & almost 75 mins gone & no subs seems a bit daft. #USWNT— Jennifer Gordon (@jgordon1987) March 6, 2016
Both Dunn and forward Christen Press entered the match in the 86th minute, which left them with little time to make an impact. Luckily for Ellis, Morgan capitalized on the United States' best chance of the match, but that likely won't stop some questions about why she waited so long to make major changes to her lineup.
Should the same problems hamper the U.S. in their third successive SheBelieves Cup match, they may not be so lucky to walk away with a win. Germany are ranked No. 2 in the world in the last FIFA ranking, and while they also had trouble putting France away, they can undoubtedly beat the United States on their best day.
The match will certainly represent the toughest test of Pugh's brief national team career, and with Ellis clearly looking toward the 2016 Olympics and 2019 Women's World Cup, her continued progression on the field will be one of the major storylines for next Wednesday's final match of the tournament.
A number of U.S. players spoke highly of the partisan crowd inside Nashville's Nissan Stadium, per John Glennon of the Tennessean:
Lloyd says Nissan Stadium crowd was "phenomenal" and said team could definitely feel it.— John Glennon (@glennonsports) March 6, 2016
U.S. G @hopesolo on Nissan crowd: "I loved the crowd here in Nashville. It wasn’t just the number. They were so creative w/ their signs."— John Glennon (@glennonsports) March 6, 2016
The match-winner also took to Twitter to thank the fans:
Nashville you were so awesome today! Such great energy at the game. Congrats Becky on your 100th cap!! #USWNT— Alex Morgan (@alexmorgan13) March 6, 2016
After the match, Ellis focused more on the result rather than the her team's performance, per the Associated Press' Teresa M. Walker (via the Fresno Bee):
When you can have the win and a great performance, I think it's a good feeling. I think the players left there with a good feeling. ... Obviously ecstatic with the world-class goal at the end there. But as I said to the players, it's also three points in this tournament. This is our first time at this tournament, and we'd obviously love to win it. And one more game to go.