Since September 2016, the U.S. Women’s National Team has played 10 different opponents -- nine teams from Europe plus Thailand.
The USA’s list of European opponents since last fall includes the Netherlands, two sets of matches each against Switzerland and Romania, tough tests against England, France and Germany at the 2017 SheBelieves Cup and another double-dip against Russia in April. Most recently of course, there were the two big wins against Sweden in Gothenburg on June 8, and against Norway in Sandefjord on June 11.
So, besides belonging to the same Confederation, what do eight of these nine European countries have in common? They make up half of the field for the 2017 UEFA Women’s EURO tournament taking place this July in the Netherlands. Romania nearly made it into the last 16 as well but fell to Portugal in the playoff for the final spot.
WNT vs. Netherlands, this year's EURO hosts.
The UEFA Women’s EURO is the most prestigious competition for women’s international soccer in Europe and, after the Women’s World Cup and the Olympic Games, the biggest and most competitive women’s international tournament in the world.
And facing the best is precisely what U.S. WNT head coach Jill Ellis committed to do coming out of the recent Olympic cycle.
“I said it last year, we want our schedule to be aggressive,” Ellis told ussoccer.com. “We’re always trying to play top-10 teams and elite teams. It’s a priority and our Federation knows it’s a priority for our team because it’s in those games where we will see growth. The games against European teams are critical.”
With the next Women’s World Cup in France, surely the European nations – especially France and Germany – will be favorites to lift the trophy in Lyon. By then, the USA clearly will have cut its teeth on European competition.
Including the games against Sweden and Norway, the U.S. has now played exactly half of the EURO field in less than a year, a rarity for most countries both in terms of the high level of opposition and the short amount of time in which the games have taken place.Read more
On June 11 in Sandefjord, Norway, U.S. WNT forward Christen Press scored the game-winning goal in the 60th minute, but it was her overall performance that earned praise from U.S. WNT head coach Jill Ellis.
“Her finish [on that goal] was fantastic, but really, in her whole 90-minutes she was involved, she was active and she was energized on both sides of the ball,” Ellis said. “It was one of her best performances I’ve seen.”
Press is known for her ability to hover on the defensive line with well-timed runs and her burst of speed, once the ball is served, can often catch defenders on their heels. Against Norway, defender Becky Sauerbrunn sent a driven diagonal ball from a few steps inside her own half over the defense and to Press, who was running hard into the left side of the penalty area. Press caught up to the ball in the middle of the box and sent a hard, first-time left-footed shot past the left foot of the onrushing goalkeeper.Read more
The past week in Scandinavia was a challenging one for the U.S. Women’s National Team, as the players traveled across the world after NWSL games on the weekend, had two trainings, and then played two games in four days against top teams that were also historic rivals.
The USA met all those challenges and earned wins in Gothenburg, Sweden, and Sandefjord, Norway, – both by shutout – against extremely physical opponents in sixth-ranked Sweden and the 11th-ranked Norway.
“To come here still missing players due to injuries, and to grind out two wins, that’s big time,” midfielder Allie Long said. “That kind of experience, to be forced to find ways to get results, is exactly what we came for.”
The USA and Norway faced each other for the 50th time in the teams' history on June 11.
With the NWSL season in full swing, the U.S. players had not been together since April 9 while both Sweden and Norway are putting the final touches on preparations to kick off the 2017 UEFA Women’s EURO in the Netherlands on July 16.
“Overall, this trip has been different for us,” U.S. WNT head coach Jill Ellis said. “We came right away and hit the ground running, but I think the players responded extremely well and with great professionalism. This kind of environment and competition is instrumental and a great lesson because down the line you have to go overseas to win a World Cup and these types of experiences will pay us back.”
Both matches played out in a similar fashion. The homes side came out on the attack and the WNT struggled to find its footing early on. In each of the matches, the response and adjustments in the second half were enough to produce a game-winning goal.
“We may not have played the way we wanted to or the way we expect to,” defender Kelley O’Hara said. “But at the end of the day, you have to do what you have to do; find a way to get a 1-0 win, keep a clean sheet, and get the job done.”
Alyssa Naeher makes a crucial save to lock in the clean sheet and 1-0 win against Sweden
The U.S. defense, led by co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, stood firm against some talented attacking players and made big plays when the USA needed them.
“We knew that physically this trip was going to be a challenge with travel and coming off the NWSL,” Sauerbrunn said. “We needed to go in having a good attitude and mentality. I think we did that in both games. It was a gut check this team needed. Moving forward and playing in big tournaments, it’s going to be like this every game.”
The U.S. Women’s National Team earned a 1-0 win in Gothenburg, Sweden, on Thursday evening, with the lone goal coming on a beautiful finish from midfielder Rose Lavelle in the 56th minute.
While the final score reflects a positive result for the WNT – beating the world’s sixth-ranked team, a country honing in on the European champions, on the road after long travel and short recovery – how the team achieved it may prove even more valuable for the future.
The game was physical – Sweden committed 14 fouls to the USA’s four – fast and end-to-end. Most importantly, it was the first time this group of players had played a road game against one of the world’s best teams. Sweden outshot the United States 13-7 and earned 10 corner kicks compared to the USA’s two, but the U.S. team played with an excellent mentality, put together enough good soccer to earn more shots on goal than Sweden and scored an goal in transition before locking the game down the rest of the way.
“I’m really proud of our team,” co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn said following the 1-0 win. “We probably defended for 40 minutes in that second half but I think that’s a mentality that we need and that we found tonight. Sometimes, we have to grit it out and find the mentality that will allow us to keep a one-goal lead. We did that and it was tough but we got the result and that’s what matters.”
Coming up against those kinds of challenges is the reason why U.S. WNT head coach Jill Ellis continues to schedule games against the best teams in the world. As the level of competition gets higher, there are more problems to solve and lessons to learn.
It becomes crucial for the players to find ways to make something happen, keep cool under pressure and avoid any critical mistakes. All while being tested mentally, physically and tactically.
Lavelle, who was playing in her first game abroad with the WNT, scored the game-winning goal.
The kind of difficult game the U.S. played in Gothenburg is one that some of the younger players on the roster have never experienced and the kind of game necessary to mold a team that can win the big tournaments down the road.
“It was a fast game,” midfielder Samantha Mewis, who played all 90 minutes, said. “Sweden is physical and they pressed us high. It took a lot of effort to pull that one out, but on the road, it’s great to get a result. We have things to work on but I’m glad we got the win. It was definitely a challenge.”
While it was mostly Sweden on the attack for the first 15 minutes, the U.S. settled in and gained control of the tempo as the first half was coming to an end. U.S head coach Jill Ellis then made a couple of modifications to open the second half, and 11 minutes into the period, the U.S. created the winning goal.
“We definitely grew into this game,” Ellis said. “Sweden generates a lot of pressure and they’re a tough team to break down. We grew in terms of our build up and adjusted. It’s not easy to get into their final third. It was a good gut check in terms of a result. The goal was a great ball played through from Crystal Dunn and just the perfect finish from Rose Lavelle. It was a tough angle and she picked it out.”
For Lavelle, the game was the first of her career outside the USA with the senior Women’s National Team, but it’s bound to be one she remembers for a long time.
“I pulled out wide and Crystal [Dunn] popped in that pocket,” Lavelle said when describing her game-winning goal. “She was running out the back line and played an awesome ball in to me. I was debating if I should play it across the face of the goal or if I should shoot it. I decided to be a little selfish and it was a good choice... this time.”
The U.S. WNT will conclude its European trip in Sandefjord when the team faces Norway on Sunday, June 11 at 1 p.m. ET on FOX. The nationally broadcast match will be the 50th meeting between the historic rivals.