SAN JOSE — The South Bay gave the United States Women’s National Soccer team a raucous send off before the back-to-back World Champions headed down under.
“I mean they’re kooky!” said USWNT defender Crystal Dunn describing the Bay Area fan base that cheered her team on more than an hour after their 2-0 victory over Wales at San Jose’s Pay Pal Park in a tune up match before the 2023 Women’s World Cup that starts on July 20th. “This crowd is obviously amazing. “We’re so happy to play in front of our home fans one last time before we kick off things at the World Cup, but you hear them, they are still there. They’re having a party. We wish we could be joining them, but we gotta catch a flight so yeah.”
That flight is headed to New Zealand, where along with Australia as co-hosts of the World Cup, will be where the tournament will begin for the USWNT’s quest for an unprecedented third consecutive World Cup title, making history for their sport.
The 2023 USWNT squad is a nice mix of young talented players looking to make their mark in their first World Cup along with the older, seasoned veterans who helped the red, white and blue to those back-to-back title runs.
The match was this team’s first time playing together since the roster was announced back on June 21st. In the first half you could tell the players were getting used to each other and trying to find the right chemistry. The missed scoring opportunities in the first 45 minutes were a result of not being on the same page with passes to one another and crosses into the box.
Give Wales, the huge underdog and who were technically in their off season, credit as they had at least five players defending down low in the box knocking away any balls sent into the middle by Team USA. The country with just a population of three million people held their own defensively for the majority of the match. This was a steppingstone for Wales as they failed to qualify for this year’s World Cup.
Trinity Rodman, daughter of former NBA great Dennis Rodman, had a breakout game for Team USA when head coach Vlatko Andonovski inserted her in the second half as a substitute for veteran star forward Alex Morgan.
Sofia Smith, another player that makes up the young nucleus core of the roster, set up Rodman in the 76th minute with a cross from the left wing that Rodman buried into an empty net for her and the game’s first goal of the match.
The young dynamic duo was responsible for the game clinching goal in the 88th minute. Smith’s shot attempt inside the box was blocked and pinballed its way over to Rodman, who used her size and strength over the smaller Wales defender to gain possession, and the 21-year-old striker curled in a shot just inside the right corner of the net for her second goal sending the sold-out crowd of 18,000 into a frenzy.
For players like Rodman, Smith, Ashley Sanchez and Alyssa Thompson, who’s combined appearances for the national team is 75 compared to the older core of players like Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Kelley O’Hara that have over 100 each, what they lack in experience, they more than make up for in ability, speed, size and strength. Whether they start or come off the bench, the makeup of this team’s roster can be mix and match with much flexibility for Andonovksi and that’s a good thing as they will have a target on their back heading into the tournament as the team to beat.
This will be the most challenging World Cup for Team USA not just because of so many fresh faces on the team but because their competition has improved in the past four years.
“We keep hearing things, ‘the world is catching up, the world is catching up (to the United States)’, the world has always been there. The top 10 teams have always been there. We saw that in 2003, a different champion (other than the United States), 2007, 2011. The world (countries) that is catching up is Wales, is Vietnam, is Zambia, Portugal. These are the countries that are catching up. The 8-0, 7-0 (blowout) games are gone. And we can see that as Germany plays Zambia and loses 3-2. Those games are going to happen. What we are preparing ourselves for is we don’t have a mentality that it’s going to be easy. No game is going to be easy,” Andonovski said.
There is a local angle to this roster in defender Naomi Girma. A native of San Jose and Stanford University alum, Girma, despite being the team’s youngest starting fullback at 23, anchors the back line along with Dunn, Emily Fox and Alana Cook. Girma is excited about her first World Cup experience but said she knows what the task is at hand.
“It’s special to be here but the focus here is redefining the details and getting ready to head to New Zealand. Girma said. She enjoyed having the sendoff game in San Jose and being able to play in front of her friends and family as “it’s special to have a game so close to home.”
Before coming up to the Bay Area this past week to practice at Stanford before yesterday’s match, the team all got together and hung out in Santa Barbara to get to know and bond with one another. It was an experience that has prepared them to get them to where they are right now.
“I think there’s been a lot going on,” said midfielder Andi Sullivan at the team’s first practice at Stanford last Wednesday about how much the team bonded. “But at the same time, all of our camps leading up to that has prepared us for this (upcoming match). So, I think we’re kinda of used to it handing different things. Media bonding, training, recovery. All the scales we’ve been building up have been paying off for this moment.”
Co-Captain Morgan said the Wales match was exactly what Team USA needed before heading out to the Kiwi nation as they now know what to expect from the teams they will be playing once group play begins for them with their first match against Vietnam on Friday July 21st.
“This was actually a perfect opponent (for us). I think we’re going to see teams like that and that’s the hardest to break down. We have to have our creativity come out. You saw that with some of the players that came off the bench. So, I think it was a great game to challenge us in a way, frustrate us in a way, and (be able to) work through the difficulties and the flows of the game,” Morgan said.
The day before the match, Rapinoe surprised the soccer world by announcing her retirement from the game at the end of this NWSL season with the OL Reign saying she is at peace with her decision and that it was time for her to move on from the pitch. Thus, making this her final World Cup for the USWNT.
As if there wasn’t already enough pressure to the three-peat, this World Cup will be a swan song for Rapinoe, something that her teammates have taken notice of and they want to send her out a champion one last time to cap a stellar career for the native or Redding, California.
“Oh I’ve told P (Rapinoe) since the beginning of this year, listen I don’t know if this is your last World Cup, but I’m going to do whatever I can to, one help the team succeed, but also send you out the best way (possible) you know. This is all for her. She’s been such a key person in my career. Playing with her at the last World Cup gave me so much joy and just being able to learn from her up close and personal. I just feel like what better way to send her off in fashion is having a three-peat,” Dunn said.
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