On Saturday it took Ashley Hatch 24 seconds to score the USA’s opener. Three days later the Matildas made it to three minutes and 16 seconds without conceding to the very same player. By the simplest of definitions, this is an improvement. Likewise, a 1-1 draw in Newcastle is better than a 3-0 loss in Sydney.
Apart from that there is not much more to say after this two-match friendly series. There is little more learned than what we already knew: that Australia play freely in attack but struggle with the final ball, and that they also play freely at the back – though in a less complimentary sense.
This series was, as manager Tony Gustavsson called it, was a “dress rehearsal” for the 2023 World Cup final. On the balance of play against a USA team missing a number of high-profile veterans, they could have a hard time getting even close. The Americans have been at the top of the Fifa rankings for 13 of the past 14 years for a reason, and their ruthless professionalism was always supposed to offer a test for an Australian outfit which has beaten them only once some four years ago.
But still Tuesday’s match did not so much expose, but confirm, existing vulnerabilities still to be addressed before the Asian Cup in January. Results, of course, are the real currency, and that the hosts plucked a goal from nothing in the final minutes is a credit to the team’s attacking intent. Kyah Simon, too, will be pleased with her deflected strike from the edge of the box, which will offer some solace for the sitter she missed on Saturday.
Overall, though, the Matildas finished this match with 16 shots to eight (7-2 on target) and did well not to concede more than Hatch’s flashy opener in the far corner.
The scene had been set for a home win. The Matildas like scoring in Newcastle and the pitch, slick from the rain, was the perfect platform. The crowd clearly knew this too, all 20,459 of them moving with the sounds of beatings drums.
Sam Kerr in particular is prolific here, with five from three games at McDonald Jones Stadium. The Chelsea striker was primed for a big outing, having the very same day place third in this year’s Ballon d’Or Féminin vote behind Alexia Putellas and Jennifer Hermoso.
“I feel proud just to be on that list so to be third,” she said before the game. “It hasn’t really sunk in yet but I feel really proud and honoured that I was before a lot of great names.”
Kerr could have given the spectators what they wanted late in the first half, when she did not quite bury Ellie Carpenter’s fine cross, but will return to England hungry ahead of the weekend’s Women’s FA Cup final against Arsenal and some of her national teammates.
There were other bright sparks, too, including Hayley Raso and Mary Fowler, and the belatedly-introduced Clare Wheeler, who was instrumental in the equaliser. Kyra Cooney-Cross had a chance too, denied only by Casey Murphy’s fingertips with 20 minutes played.
But in the end it was all a bit difficult against a world champion side featuring Rose Lavelle and Lindsey Horan, who scored a would-be winner in the 92nd minute only for it to be ruled offside.
Raso’s return to the XI turned into a 70-minute Emily Fox hunt. The competition and raw physicality between the pair out wide rivalled the broader contest itself. It also tested Raso’s shoulder, which has kept the Manchester City winger out for both club and country in recent months and copped Fox’s full body weight during one of countless clashes.
Fowler, for her part, was again on song, threading ball after ball to Kerr with a cunning and meticulousness defying her 18 years. Her on-field connection with her captain in particular is one of the more pleasing elements of this team in its current form. The obvious issue, of course, comes when one or both are unavailable.
Fowler and Kerr are what Gustavsson described pre-match as two of his “core group of players” in this starting line-up, which begs the question: if this is the “core group”, where are the back-ups?
The manager has introduced some debutants in recent windows but the overall look of the team remains the same, suggesting depth could be an issue in the Asian Cup and beyond, with the 2023 World Cup now not such a distance-future prospect.
This was supposed to be the issue of the USA team, whose largely second-string side have shone this series with several young players and confirmed by Vlatko Andonovski’s decision to retain an identical starting line-up save for the inclusion of Sofia Huerta. And so the visitors’ efficiency remained and Lydia Williams was forced to defend her goal repeatedly, including one superb dive to deny Lynn Williams.
The pressure built and a second USA goal was seemingly on the way, until Wheeler won the ball off Ashley Sanchez to start an attacking move that ended with the ball at Simon’s feet, then bouncing off substitute Becky Sauerbrunn and over Murphy into the net.