Image Courtesy: Nike | USWNT vs Matildas | Thursday 4 April, 2019 | Photo: Rachel Bach (@bythewhiteline)

It was the final top-10 international friendly the Matildas would play before heading to France for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in June, and it couldn’t have come against a bigger opponent.

The USA are undoubtedly the standard-bearers of international women’s football, maintaining their number 1 FIFA world ranking since taking out the 2015 Women’s World Cup.

And today, they proved why they are one of the favourites heading to France to defend their title, defeating the Matildas 5-3 at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Colorado.

The last time these two teams met, it ended in a 1-1 stalemate after a stoppage-time header by USA’s Lindsey Horan cancelled out Chloe Logarzo’s first-half counter-attacking goal.

Prior to this, during the inaugural Tournament of Nations in 2017, it was the Matildas who claimed bragging rights after defeating the USA 1-0 thanks to a Tameka Butt strike.

However, the USA were able to put these past results behind them, throwing down the gauntlet and showing the world that they are still the team to beat.

PHOTO GALLERY

The hosts were by far the more dominant side from the kick-off, looking comfortable and organised in possession and pressing the visitors quickly when out of it. Sitting in the now-common 4-3-3 formation, they barely allowed the Matildas to venture into their attacking half in the opening ten minutes.

The danger posed by the USA’s two wide forwards, Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath, ensured that Australia’s overlapping full-backs of Ellie Carpenter and Gema Simon weren’t given the opportunity to move forward, flattening out the Matildas’ natural attacking style.

The Australians’ insistence on playing out from the back and utilising the new rule change of allowing players inside the box during goal kicks only helped the hosts to exert this forward pressure, forcing the Matildas’ defenders into long clearances that were inevitably snapped up by deeper-lying American players before being recycled.

Indeed, the opening period of the first half was an incredibly nervy one for the visiting side, conceding several shots and corners after struggling to shut down a many-pronged USA attack. Tobin Heath in particular found a lot of joy down the right wing against the inexperienced Newcastle Jets left-back Gema Simon, who was often caught flat-footed or out of position, allowing Heath to get in behind her several times.

However, it was superstar striker Alex Morgan who would open the scoring in the 16th minute after a strong individual effort that began down the left channel. Bodying Matildas centre-half Clare Polkinghorne off of a bouncing ball, Morgan turned in-field with the ball at her feet and drove towards the top of the box.

With Polkinghorne out of the picture, centre-back Alanna Kennedy was forced to move across to pressure Morgan, but the striker turned her Orlando Pride team-mate inside out with some quick footwork before sending a rocket across goal and into the top right corner of the net, past the outstretched arms of goalkeeper Lydia Williams. 1-0 to the hosts.

This goal appeared to shake the Matildas out of their nervous stupor, as the visitors immediately began to settle and develop a more solid passing game. It wasn’t until the 20th minute that Matildas right-back Ellie Carpenter was able to move further up the field and send a series of looping crosses into the box for centre-forward Sam Kerr and left winger Lisa De Vanna to latch onto.

Then, in the 29th minute and largely against the run of play, the Matildas equalised. It was the veteran De Vanna, who had been the most potent threat for the Australians so far in the game, to finish it. After Caitlin Foord picked up the ball near half way and charged into the empty space ahead, De Vanna made a wide arcing run out on the left side.

Having drawn in USA centre-back Abby Dahlkemper and right-back Sonnett, Foord then sent a perfectly-weighted pass out to De Vanna, now in acres of space. She took one touch to steady herself and rifled it into the top right corner. 1-1.

The hosts almost restored their lead minutes later after Heath cut back for Rapinoe on the penalty spot — her shot was deflected off Williams and looked to be spinning in at the back post, but Carpenter dramatically cleared the ball off the line.

Chances were few and far between for the Matildas throughout the first half, though hearts were in mouths in the 39th minute when Sam Kerr received a slicing pass from Emily Van Egmond and turned in-field, lining up for what would have almost certainly been a top bins golazo before Dahlkemper’s sliding challenge forced the ball out for a corner.

Heath continued to cause problems in the closing minutes of the first half, sprinting into the open space behind Simon once again and getting onto the end of a through-ball. Taking the ball around the backtracking Kennedy, Heath then tried to chip the onrushing Williams from an acute angle inside the six yard box, but the ball just trickled wide at the back post.

The teams would go into the sheds at 1-1, with the USA looking like it was only a matter of time before they got their lead back. The half-time stats say it all: the USA led the Matildas 5 to 1 in shots on goal, as well as 8 to 1 in corners.

The second half is where the game exploded into life.

Two minutes after the restart, the Matildas were ahead. Caitlin Foord, who had struggled to get on the ball in the first half, went on a mazy run down the centre-left channel. She then sent substitute Sam Mewis to the shops with a neat 360-degree turn before using Dahlkemper as a shield and shooting across goal, past the unsighted Alyssa Naeher, and into the net. 1-2.

But barely six minutes later, the USA were level. After a Rapinoe cross from the left side was missed by everybody in the central area, the ball popped out near the top of the box at the feet of right-back Sonnett. Sonnett then clipped a lovely looping ball to the back post for Heath, who ghosted in behind her defenders and headed it into the roof of the net. 2-2!

There was barely time for a breather as the host’s third goal came seven minutes later. Sam Mewis demonstrated some brilliant initiative and individual skill to dance past three Matildas defenders down the right side, sending a lovely bending cross to the back post. While the initial ball was deflected by Carpenter, Rapinoe was able to collect the cleared ball, cleverly turn in-field, take a step, and then shoot low and hard back across goal and into the bottom left corner of the net. 3-2.

The USA would then make two substitutions, bringing on Utah Royals striker Christen Press for Lindsey Horan and the young Washington Spirit winger Mallory Pugh for Megan Rapinoe.

It was the substitute, Pugh, who would score the USA’s fourth goal in the 67th minute. With her first touch of the game.

After a driving run by Morgan across the top of the box, the striker sent a neat back-heel pass into Sonnett, who was being pressured from behind by Simon. However, by coming in-field to shepherd Sonnett, Simon neglected the substitute Pugh, who was left all alone on the right side. An easy square pass out from Sonnett found the onrushing Pugh, who took one touch before powering her shot low and hard across Williams and into the left side-netting. 4-2.

But the game wasn’t done yet!

In the 81st minute, Sam Kerr, who had been kept relatively quiet for most of the night, finally broke her goal-scoring drought against the USA. After some strong work by Carpenter down the right side, the ball was cut back for substitute Hayley Raso, who clipped a perfectly-weighted cross in between the two centre-backs for the leaping Kerr. Naturally, Kerr slammed her header low and hard back across goal, away from the diving Naeher. 4-3!

It looked as though this would be the final score, despite two or three more half-chances to the Matildas, before the hosts locked up the win in the final minute of stoppage time. This time, it was goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher who would get the assist, sending a huge kick downfield into the path of the fresh-legged Pugh. Williams, who had come out initially to try and collect Naeher’s long pass, was caught in no-woman’s-land, and was easily chipped by the pacy winger. And with that, the game would end 5-3 in favour of the USA.

While both the USA and the Matildas have proved time and again that they contain some of the best attackers in the world, today’s score-line suggests that both teams continue to struggle defensively, and lack the depth to cover for starting players.

As promised, the game delivered drama in spades; a hatful of goals, a come-from-behind win, goal-line clearances, some brilliant individual performances, and a thrilling glimpse into what’s in store at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in June.

MATCH DETAILS

United States 5 (Morgan 14′, Heath 53′, Rapinoe 60′, Pugh 67′ / 90’+5)
Australia 3 (De Vanna 29′, Foord 47′, Kerr 81′)

United States: Alyssa Naeher; Crystal Dunn, Becky Sauerbrunn, Abby Dahlkemper, Emily Sonnett; Lindsey Horan, Julie Ertz, Rose Lavelle; Megan Rapinoe (c), Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath.

Subs: Sam Mewis (Lavelle 46′), Christen Press (Horan 64′), Mallory Pugh (Rapinoe 66′), Tierna Davidson (Sonnett 79′), Allie Long (Morgan 81′), Carli Lloyd (Dahlkemper 85′)

Yellow Cards: Rapinoe 49′, Long 90’+1

Australia: Lydia Williams; Gema Simon, Alanna Kennedy, Clare Polkinghorne, Ellie Carpenter; Elise Kellond-Knight, Emily van Egmond, Caitlin Foord; Lisa De Vanna, Sam Kerr (c), Tameka Yallop.

Subs: Emily Gielnik (De Vanna 57′), Hayley Raso (Kellond-Knight 68′), Mary Fowler (Foord 75′), Katrina Gorry (Yallop 90′)

Yellow Cards: Polkinghorne 84′

Attendance: 17,264 at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, Denver