Starting on Friday night in Commerce City (Denver) Colorado, the USWNT hosts the Football Ferns of New Zealand for two friendlies during the current FIFA break. The first match kicks off at 10PM Eastern, and will be televised in the US on ESPN2. The second match is next Tuesday the 19th at 7:30PM in Cincinnati, Ohio. Find that one on the TV on FS1.
Across Denver, banners are advertising the event, which is a nice touch for the national team.
Denver is home to Lindsey Horan and Mallory Pugh. So U.S. Soccer is hyping their return to the mile high city with a video tour and photo shoot across town.
I have some mixed feelings about female players receiving the following request: "...and, nice smile." I don't have time to write a sufficiently detailed article on that topic today, but I did wince when I heard the comment. We'll press on.
Next week, it's off to Cincinnati. A certain Boston Breakers rookie was mildly excited when she learned that her country would be hosting a match in her hometown.
Most of the players on the current rosters of both teams were not yet alive to witness the last USWNT loss to the Football Ferns. That happened in December of 1987. Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn were two years old. Carli Lloyd, who is nursing an ankle injury and not on the squad for these friendlies, was just five.
Let's take a trip back to December 1987 and see what was blowing up the Billboard Hot 100 on the radio, or available for purchase on vinyl or cassette tape at the local National Record Mart in the mall. First up, a George Michael classic. However, if you don't like multiple closeups of the rear pockets of acid-washed Levis, look away now.
While you were at the mall, you might have seen and heard Tiffany, who was clearly there to stock up on more and more and more acid-washed denim. All the denim. She was somewhat of a flash-mob pioneer, and one could imagine her benefitting greatly from our current selfie and smartphone era to draw even larger crowds to her impromptu mall atrium concerts.
I had a decent crush on Tiffany in 1987, and will admit to attempting to convince a classmate that the picture of Tiffany (torn out of the tape liner notes) taped to the inside of my locker was actually a picture of my "girlfriend from another school district." Classmate replied, "That's Tiffany." Le sigh.
But if you had a heartbeat in 1987 and you were old enough to know that the movie "Dirty Dancing" had a hint of scandal to it (see also: Footloose, Lambada, etc. Apparently all dance-based movies are scandalous), you only had one song coursing through your brain in late 1987. (I've Had) The Time of My Life.
Warning: if you picture Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze singing this song to each other, you're going to damage your memory once you see Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes singing instead. It's possible the performers were relegated to a dust-filled, dimly-lit room for the sole purpose of not haunting your dreams. Fortunately, there are plenty of movie scenes interspersed throughout for your viewing enjoyment.
So that was the soundtrack of the last USWNT loss to New Zealand, almost 30 years ago. The teams did play to a 1-1 draw in Colombus, Ohio in 2013, but as the footballing gods never fail to remind us, a draw does not interrupt an unbeaten streak.
Today, and on Tuesday, we'll find out if the unbeaten streak will reach 30 years. There are a few reasons to be unsure about the US getting two wins, but it will take some doing for the Ferns to take anything away from a team that has dominated them in every contest for most of a generation.
Still, the Football Ferns are trying, and apparently have been working on being ready for the altitude in Colorado for at least a couple of weeks. The active NWSL players on both teams won't have had this luxury, but it's probably not going to make a difference. With only two weeks remaining in the regular season, the NWSL vets will be in top shape (if carrying a few normal late-season minor knocks).
What to watch, USWNT:
- US fans frequently agitate for a Christen Press / Alex Morgan attack. They'll be rotating with Lynn Williams, Crystal Dunn and Mallory Pugh (especially Pugh in Colorado), but it's possible the two US forwards who have been in the best form for their NWSL clubs may find themselves on the field together.
- Defender Tierna Davidson, currently of Stanford, is with the team—her first senior call-up. It's unlikely she'll see any time, but anything is possible. She's been a part of the U-20 WNT, so the coaching staff is familiar with her and has brought her in to give her a taste of the pace and physicality of top level international play.
- Rose Lavelle has only just returned in the past couple of weeks from a hamstring injury she suffered in Norway in June. The Breakers have only been able to use her as a substitute for 20-30 minutes at a time. You'd have to assume she'll play in Cincinnati, but if she starts, it will be interesting to see how long she plays. Boston has only two remaining games, but a setback for Lavelle while on international duty would be extremely frustrating.
- Shape. Having moved on from the Allie Long single CB experiment, Ellis has instead looked at a wider range of other defenders—with speed as a priority. Neither Ali Krieger nor Megan Klingenberg are with the team currently. Taylor Smith acquitted herself well in her last action, and Casey Short has looked very natural with the team most of the time. Where that leaves Kelley O'Hara is anyone's guess, as the middle defense looks fairly set with Sauerbrunn, Ertz and Dahlkemper. Let's hope for a shape that plays to the players strengths, rather than another experiment that tests players in unfamiliar positions.
- Rapinoe. She's just a joy to watch play, so that's something to watch whenever one gets the chance.
What to watch, New Zealand:
- NWSL players Katie Bowen, Rosie White and Rebekah Stott will know what to expect from their league teammates. That doesn't mean they'll be able to do anything about it, but they'll at least know what to expect.
- New Captain Ali Riley (FC Rosengard) was born and raised in California, but has 109 caps for NZ in her career. She'll be joined by international veterans Ria Percival (FC Basel) and Kirsty Yallop (Klepp IL) as fellow 100+ cap vets leading the Football Ferns.
- Annalie Longo (Cashmere Technical) and Betsy Hassett (KR Reykjavik) are likely to earn their 100th caps for their squad, as they both sit on 99 coming into these two matches.
- New, uncapped players fill out the squad. Victoria Esson (North Shore United), Elizabeth Anton (Western Springs), Malia Steinmetz (Forest Hill Milford United), Jane Barnett (Northwest United), Martine "Marty" Puketapu (University of Colorado) and Katie Rood (Juventus) will all vie for time.
In all likelihood, the US will come out on top in both these matches. But I wouldn't be surprised to see a result for the Ferns if the US attack doesn't come together. Rosie White can be disruptive in the middle of the pitch, and she'll be a pest for Horan, Mewis and Long as they attempt to connect the dots in attack. However, White may not have the luxury of dropping back for the ball too much; she and Hannah Wilkinson (Vittsjo GIK) are the only Fern forwards with more than five caps, so her main job will mostly be to focus on getting open and hitting the net.
I expect NZ to attack fast and often, hoping that their defense can handle any counter attacks. They'll want to try to dictate the tempo, and it will be interesting to see if their altitude training pays dividends late in the game. Unfortunately, the US forwards thrive on the counter. The pace and accuracy of Dunn, Morgan and Press have been deadly in their club seasons, and they're likely to make the difference in Colorado tonight as well.
USA 3-1 New Zealand
So... I didn't see Julie Ertz grabbing two of the goals on Friday night, but the results were spot on, with a 3-1 scoreline in favor of the USWNT.
Things looked decent for fans of both sides, but the Football Ferns couldn't rely on their bench to provide an injection of veteran leadership or proven world-class talent the way the US could. Still, the Hannah Wilkinson goal arrived to bring NZ back within one goal and suddenly the result didn't seem certain. Is it a product of the post World Cup results that makes no lead seem secure? Alex Morgan quickly dispensed with any thoughts of a capitulation, taking down a cross from new US international Sophia Huerta, tucking inside and putting the ball in a tiny slice of space to grab the third goal for team USA. Art indeed.
Tonight will feature Cincinnati's hometown hero, Rose Lavelle. If she starts, it will be her first start for club or country since June, and Boston Breakers fans will have mixed emotions: glad she's sufficiently fit to be back in the starting XI, but worried that she'll aggravate the injury suffered in Norway while featuring for the USWNT. The Breakers have just two games remaining (at Washington and at home v. Sky Blue) and they'll want Rose to be a big part of those two games.
In the first half on Friday, the results were 2-0 for the USA. New Zealand adjusted their attack at halftime and looked better and more dangerous, but still only managed a 1-1 result in the second half to end down 3-1. If the Ferns are able to duplicate or build upon their second half results while shoring up some of the defensive liabilities that cost them (such as, I dunno, marking Julie Ertz), they may be able to write a different script tonight.
It will be interesting to see if Ellis gives a GK not named Naeher a chance to play tonight. Though the three in camp are all solid, they play differently, and tend to give up different types of goals when one does slide through. I'm not sure whose style is best to counter the NZ attack, but Naeher got the win on Friday and it seems dumb to keep her in there just to keep building her cap count.
Barring a massive youth injection in the starting lineups, I think this one is probably closer than the last, but that the US will once again come away with the win.
USA 3-2 New Zealand