The United States passed a first test in Group D at the Women's World Cup with a 3-1 victory over Australia on Monday evening in Winnipeg, Manitoba. While the final score might suggest a dominant performance, in truth the Americans were far from their best against a lively Australia team that threatened for long stretches to pull off an upset against the two-time champions.
The match played to expectations in the end, and three main factors contributed to the result more than any others. First, goalkeeper Hope Solo made a pair of clutch saves to deny Australia as the Matildas ran rampant early in the match. Second, winger Megan Rapinoe netted a pair of goals—including the crucial opener—and played a supporting role in another. Third, the Americans' superior fitness levels resulted in a strong second half that saw the U.S. score twice and seal the victory.
For the first 10 minutes of the match, and indeed for most of the first half, Australia was the better team. Alen Stajcic's side, ranked No. 10 in the world, showed no fear against the second-ranked Americans, attacking with style and incision in the opening stages. Taking advantage of gaps between the U.S. back line and midfielders Carli Lloyd and Lauren Holiday, Australia pushed the ball forward to Michelle Heyman in central areas, allowing the striker to play passes into space to her teammates.
A big chance arrived in the fifth minute, when the ball rolled invitingly to Emily van Egmond along the edge of the box. Van Egmond rifled a powerful shot on target, but Solo pushed the ball onto the bar for a key save.
It was a crucial moment for the U.S., which had been decidedly second best to that point and desperately needed to keep Australia off the scoresheet. In addition, it was an important save, and a bit of personal redemption for Solo, following the latest revelations about her off-pitch problems, as reported by ESPN late last week.
Australia continued to press the U.S., but the Americans took the lead through Rapinoe in the 12th minute. Taking possession well outside the box, the winger tried a long-distance shot that deflected off a defender and past goalkeeper Melissa Barbieri for the opening goal. The strike owed more than a little to luck, but Rapinoe's willingness to force the issue, and her ability to create something from nothing, proved immensely beneficial to the U.S.
Just a minute later, Solo made another fine save to preserve the lead, keeping out Samantha Kerr's powerful volley. Up to that point, Australia had completely outplayed the U.S., but the Americans still led because of the efforts of their two best players on the night.
Australia's Lisa De Vanna managed to equalize shortly thereafter, but the U.S., despite still struggling, managed to keep the game 1-1 until halftime. From there, the team's outstanding fitness levels made the difference—although Rapinoe again played a starring role.
The winner came in the 61st minute, and almost inevitably, Rapinoe was involved. After bringing down a goal-kick in the U.S. half, Rapinoe turned and clipped a pass to Sydney Leroux down the left flank. Leroux stormed into the box and held off a defender before pulling back for Christen Press, who beat Barbieri with a first-time shot into the bottom corner. Once again, Rapinoe's ability to play direct, and to provide a spark, made the difference for the Americans.
The winger then added the killer third goal 12 minutes from time, dribbling into the box before dispatching a low shot past Barbieri. By then, however, it was clear that Australia had faded physically.
In the first half, and especially the first 20 minutes, Australia was the better team. The Matildas swarmed to the ball, outran the U.S. and attacked with verve. But by the time Rapinoe's second goal flew in, they were a spent force.
By contrast, the American players remained fresh. Passing the ball across the pitch, the U.S. finally began to dominate. From then on, the result was never in doubt, which was no small feat considering how well Australia had started.
"(We're) a little relieved, I think, more than anything," Rapinoe told Fox Sports 1 after the match. "Obviously we were a bit nervous, and we couldn't have played much worse at times, but we got three goals. Hope Solo was freaking huge today, and everybody stepped up."
Rapinoe added: "It's big. Obviously it's the first tournament for a lot of people—it's only my second, first game—so to get out of here with a win, three points, it's huge. On to the next."
For all the faults of this first U.S. performance, coach Jill Ellis will be pleased that her side finished the match playing its best soccer of the night. Several issues remain, especially the imbalance in midfield that led to Australia finding so much space behind Lloyd and Holiday, but for now, the result is the most important consideration.
Through one round of matches, the Americans stand alone atop Group D, the so-called group of death. Many expected Sweden to have three points as well, but Pia Sundhage's team could only draw with an exciting Nigeria squad, 3-3, in Group D's first match.
That means the U.S. is in control, and that will only serve as a boost for the next game on Friday, against fifth-ranked Sweden and former U.S. coach Sundhage. Win that game and the Americans will all but wrap up the group, as well as send a statement of their intentions this summer.