The U.S. Women's National Team's final home friendly before the 2019 Women's World Cup felt very much like a party. Fireworks displays before and after the match served to enterain the near-sellout crowd at Red Bull Arena, though on-field fireworks took a bit longer to light.
Taking on a game, but overmatched Mexican team, the USWNT scored an early opener, but labored through much of the rest of the first half, at least before a combination of the heat and the effectiveness of American substitutes Carli Lloyd, Christen Press and Mallory Pugh overwhelmed the Mexicans in an eventual 3-0 triumph.
Second-half goals by Pugh and Press gave the fans something to cheer for, and served to overshadow a frustrating first 45 minutes, which saw plenty of U.S. chances, but only one Tobin Heath goal. Mexican goalkeeper Cecilia Santiago made a handful of top-notch saves to keep the USWNT to a 1-0 lead, but there were plenty of wasted chances, bad passes and poor touches that also prevented the Americans from fully flexing their superiority against a young Mexican team in rebuilding mode after failing to qualify for the World Cup.
That may feel like nitpicking of a team regarded as the favorite to win the World Cup next month, but it is those very expectations that make seeing Jill Ellis' first-choice lineup fail to run up the score against subpar opposition a bit concerning.
"Definitely, I think the first half was a little disappointing," Julie Ertz said. "Not kind of how well we wanted to play, but I do think we had opportunities and we had some good things happen. We take from that and learn and move forward from that."
"We created a lot a chances," Ellis said. "And I think the players would say it as well, we can definitely be sharper with the final pass, and inside our 18."
Ellis didn't sound too bothered. The send-off series may have lacked strong opposition, but it did allow her to try some new tactical and positional wrinkles, and most importantly, the USWNT head to France on a run of wins, and with a pair of shutouts.
As the USWNT prepares to depart for Europe, here is a look at keep talking points from its final pre-World Cup friendly:
Dunn shows off versatility
Crystal Dunn is an attacking player at heart, but she is fully embracing the left back role Jill Ellis has entrusted her with. Her showing in 45 minutes of action on Sunday served as a reminder that while she may be used as a defender, she is srtill going to be a dangerous attacker.
Dunn created two of the U.S. team's best chances in the first half, forcing a pair of highlight-reel saves by Mexico goalkeeper Santiago.
"I’ve always been told to put my own twist on the outside back role," Dunn said. "I just make it my own, and I think for me it’s just about trying to impact the game from that position and getting myself in pockets and being able to create whatever I can to help the team succeed in the attacking role."
Dunn points to Brazilian fullback Dani Alves as an inspiration for the type of attack-minded fullback she hopes to be for the USWNT, but as much as she is embracing the challenge of the role, the assignment hasn't changed her attacking DNA.
"Do I love defending? That's very not easy question to answer," Dunn said. "No, of course I don't. I'm an attacking-minded player, but I know that that is my role on this team and I fall in love with being the best that I can be. If that means they need me to be an outside back that's going to limit chances 1-v-1 defending, then of course I'm in love with the grind and always just being at my best every day."
While Dunn is looking set to start at left back for the USWNT, Ellis also gave Tobin Heath some time at the position, dropping her down from her normal winger role. Heath was effective in the role, even if it still did seem odd to see her in the position.
"I think Tobin did really well, and it’s always good to have smart players that can adapt and adjust and play any position if needed," Ellis said.
Alex Morgan struggled, but attacking subs stepped up
Many of the near-sellout crowd of 26,332 at Red Bull Arena were cheering for Alex Morgan to deliver a goal, but she was unable to convert any of her chances in a frustrating performance that also saw her take a minor knock that helped cut short her day to 45 minutes.
Morgan confirmed after the match that she was fine, joking it was a "tactical injury", and she also gave credit to the team's attacking substiutes, which created a pair of second-half goals to put the match out of reach. Lloyd created several chances before setting up Pugh's goal, and Christen Press worked some magic on a beautiful individual goal to seal the 3-0 victory.
"Our depth is pretty incredible. We have two starting 11s honestly, we could have two starting 11s in the World Cup," Morgan said. " We have incredible depth and the front three that started today and the front three that came off the bench are all competing for three spots.
"This team has always been known for its depth but I do think this is the best team that I’ve played with on the national team."
USWNT heads to France healthy and ready to focus
Morgan left the match at halftime after a rough challenge and Ertz took an elbow to the face from a teammate, but overall the Americans left Red Bull Arena healthy as the team heads to Europe ahead of its World Cup opener against Thailand.
Ellis said after the match that there were no serious injury concerns as the team prepares to head to England for the next step in itts preparations in the run-up to the June 11 World Cup opener aginst Thailand. Ellis played coy when asked if the team would be organizing a scrimmage before the opener, while her players sounded eager to close the book on the send-off series so they can concentrate on their final World Cup preparations.
"Right now it's all about cohesion," Ertz said. "Everything's getting on the same page. It's fine-tuning everything. The principles are set. We know what we're doing there, which is great going into it because now we can really focus on finalizing those details and cleaning everything up."
"We have been talking about how excited we are to get out of here, no offense to anyone," Morgan said. "We are ready to have that tight-knit community within our team, and continue to build that chemistry.
"Also, no offense to this, just get away from the media for a little bit, and just disconnect with everything and connect more with the team," Morgan said. "We're really looking forward to that piece of it, and enjoying each other's company before the roller oaster gets real."
The U.S. team heads to the World Cup as the choice to repeat as champions, and while Sunday's performance wasn't quite as dominant as you would expect from the best team in the world, Ellis isn't shying away from the label of World Cup favorites.
"There’s a lot of good teams, and we’re all aware of that, but we want to be the team to beat," Ellis said. "I think that’s our approach and I don’t think you’d see it any different from this team even 10 years from now in terms of how this program has built itself to be at that point."