Sophia Smith admitted that she was nervous – and she is never nervous. Savannah DeMelo? She had some nerves, too, after finding out less than 24 hours earlier that her first international start would take place in the United States’ opening match of the 2023 World Cup.
“I mean, it’s a World Cup,” Smith said of the nerves. “I feel like that just shows how much it means.”
The United States’ 3-0 victory over Vietnam on Saturday to open the team’s World Cup title defense was hardly the 13-0 thumping of Thailand took place in the opener four years ago, but it served an almost ironic purpose for the Americans: oil the wheels and get some experience together.
USA head coach Vlatko Andonovski rolled out a starting 11 on Saturday that had never previously played together in a competitive match, including six players taking part in their first World Cup matches. Even the veterans needed the adjustment period.
“First games are just tough with the nerves,” said Julie Ertz, who was part of the 2015 and 2019 World Cup-winning teams. “The tournament’s already started, you’re playing on day three, so [there’s] anticipation. Just getting out there and get moving is huge, coming away with the win is huge. Obviously, there are things we need to buckle down and finishing our chances is one of them, so I think it’s just great momentum that we can go back, [watch] some film, and them be able to move on to the Netherlands.”
If there was a tangible sign of nerves or unfamiliarity as a starting group, it was in front of goal. The USA took 27 shots (while allowing none) but put just eight on frame. Against a better opponent like the Netherlands, that could be a recipe for regret, but an opener against Vietnam allowed the United States to work through some of the “cobwebs”, as DeMelo called it.
“At the end, I just felt like we needed to be a little bit better with the final shot,” Andonovski said. “Usually, it’s the final pass [that needs improvement]. Now, I would say it’s the final shot. We created opportunities, we had a penalty kick, obviously enough to score a few more goals, but there are lots of positives from game one going into game two.”
Winning a World Cup requires elite talent and superior tactics. Another important ingredient often overlooked is timing. Many great teams have failed to lift the trophy because the timing wasn’t right, whether due to injuries, form, or opponents hitting their peak at a more opportune time.
Great teams often build their way into a World Cup, and the USA is no exception despite how the opener went in France four years ago. In 2015, the USA weathered a shaky group-stage performance and start to the knockout round by grinding out results. A formation change in the quarter-final unlocked their full potential, and it culminated with a 5-2 thrashing of Japan in the final, where Carli Lloyd scored a hat-trick.
Opening matches are often a practice in figuring out what works – and the USA has plenty to do in that department.
Ertz returned to the center-back position – where she starred at the 2015 tournament – for the first time since 2019 on Saturday. She has not regularly played the position in six years. A recent injury to captain Becky Sauerbrunn, however, forced Andonovski to scramble. His solution appears to be a partnership between Ertz and Naomi Girma, who had not previously played next to each other in an official match (although the USA did play the Philippines in a closed-door game last week, per multiple sources, in a game neither federation would confirm took place, let alone confirm details about it). Preparations for a role change began between Ertz and staff even before the team reassembled in late June, with video analysis and meetings.
“Throughout my entire time with the national team, you always have to be versatile so you’re always kind of thrown in different things, just to be able to [do what’s] needed,” Ertz said. “Obviously, we’ve been working on possibilities of being in the back for a while, at least since I’ve been back. So, it’s been good. Nay’s world-class as well so that sure helps for me getting back, not playing there in a while.”
Ertz played the ball over the top to Smith to help set up Lindsey Horan’s second-half goal. As she has been whenever she has been on the field in recent years, Ertz was the frequent target of set pieces on Saturday, which also paid off on Smith’s second goal. Ertz is a focal point no matter what her position.
DeMelo’s start at the No 10 role gave her major experience in just her second senior international game, which could prove valuable if she is needed again later in the tournament. DeMelo was deputizing for Rose Lavelle, who was sidelined for three months in the buildup to the tournament as a precautionary measure for a nagging knee injury.
“She’s been crushing it,” Lavelle said of DeMelo. “I’ve been so happy for her. I think she’s earned her spot on this team. I think she’s proved in the league what she can do, and I think she’s proved here what she can do, too. I think she’s a special player and she’s going to be around for a long time.”
Lavelle and winger Megan Rapinoe, who is also returning from injury, entered the match just past the hour mark. How ready Lavelle would be for this tournament was one of several major questions hanging over a USA team that has been forced to react to an endless stream of injuries. Lavelle won the Bronze Ball in a breakout 2019 tournament and got progressively better in the years following. If she can be anywhere near that level in her return, it will be good news for the USA. Saturday was an auspicious start to that procees.
Two minutes after entering the match, Lavelle got free to pick out Rapinoe for an open shot, which Rapinoe mishit. Then came a strike from Lavelle that hit the bottom of the crossbar, bounced down on the line, and stayed out. It was a warning shot for Vietnam and the rest of the world.
“I’ve been feeling really good,” Lavelle said. “I’ve been doing as much off the field as I can to make sure that I am ready for the team when I am needed. I’ve been feeling really, really good and I’m excited to be back out there.”
Defender Kelley O’Hara also played the final six minutes to mark another return from injury.
Andonovski wanted answers and reassurances from the opening match, which just so happened to be against what is expected to be the weakest team in the group. It’s a luxury, sure, but that’s part of the process. The USA thinks and speaks about World Cups with the end in mind. They talk about winning “two tournaments”: the group stage and then the knockout round. They talk about collecting “21 points,” the idea being that seven victories leads to a World Cup title.
Some outside the USA walls find it cocky. Others admire it as undying confidence. Either way, it has worked. The USA are four-time champions (from eight previous World Cups) and winners of the past two editions.
Saturday was the start of a quest for a three-peat, which has never happened on the men’s or women’s side. Three points in the books and, they hope, ’18 more’ to go.
“I wholeheartedly believe that these players are capable of doing what they did,” Andonovski said. “Besides Soph, I thought [Emily Fox] and Trinity [Rodman] were really good on the right side and did a really good job. I thought Andi [Sullivan] was a key figure in the middle of the field in regaining possession of the ball in some important attacks. And Naomi in the back, I thought she looked like she has three World Cups behind her. So comfortable and flawless.
“I want to say that I expected it and I’m happy with the way that they played. They met my expectations. Now, I do also believe that going into game two, they will go a little bit more encouraged, less nerves, no stress, and as Soph said, she just can’t wait for the next one now.”