AUCKLAND, New Zealand — When Sophia Smith has two goals and an assist in her first World Cup game, Lindsey Horan has a highlight reel’s worth of sick passes, and a roster full of newcomers get a much-needed dose of confidence, it’s hard to question the result.
And yet, this is the United States women’s national team. Leave goals out on the field, as the USWNT did several times over in their 3-0 win against Vietnam on Saturday (Friday night in the U.S.), and those watching are going to be picky.
The good thing is, the USWNT isn’t satisfied, either.
Happy with the win and the three points that go with it, of course. But aware it has to do better going forward —like, say, starting Thursday (Wednesday night in the U.S.) with the 2019 World Cup final rematch against the Netherlands — and confident they will.
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“We could have finished a lot more of our opportunities,” said Horan, who buried a shot in the 77th after freezing the goalkeeper. “We know that, and that’s how it’s gonna go sometimes. But we’re happy with the win, we move forward and get ready for the next game.”
Fairly or not, the USWNT is judged by its past successes and accomplishments. And when they drew Vietnam for the opener, the assumption was this was going to be another blowout like that 13-0 game against Thailand four years ago.
That comparison was never accurate, however. Firstly, Thailand had the bad fortune to play the USWNT after the team had been pent up for four-plus days, watching every other group-stage opener in the tournament and itching to get on the field.
The game also has changed over the last four years, the gap narrowing between developing teams and the world’s best. The days of 6-0 and 7-0 blowouts are gone. A team like Vietnam might still not be able to beat a USWNT, but it can make things difficult.
But the biggest issue is this USWNT squad has been almost completely overhauled since the Tokyo Olympics. Twelve of the 23 players have never played in a major international tournament before. Six of the starters Saturday were making their World Cup debut.
“I don’t usually get nervous, but I was nervous,” Smith said.
And while Julie Ertz might be a decorated veteran, she hasn’t played center back regularly since 2017. Yet there she was Saturday, in only her third game back for the USWNT since Tokyo.
This game was as much about getting players in sync as anything and, by that measure, it was a success. There were some absolutely exquisite combinations, like on the first goal. Alex Morgan made a back-heel flick on a no-look pass from Horan, and Smith pounced on it, shooting it beneath the legs of the stretched-out goalkeeper.
There also were a couple of plays an inch or two from being talked about for the rest of the tournament. Like Megan Rapinoe’s volley that went over the crossbar. Or Rose Lavelle’s shot that banged off the crossbar.
The USWNT didn’t look like a team trying to figure itself out, as it often has over the last two years. It looked like a cohesive unit, one that with a little fine-tuning will be ferocious.
“To see some of the connections and some of the combinations we were able to do was very positive,” coach Vlatko Andonovski said. “At the end, I felt we needed to be a little bit better with the final shot. Usually, it’s the final pass. Today it was final shot.”
The USWNT finished with a whopping 27 attempts at the goal, all but three of them from inside the 18-yard box. That included a missed penalty attempt by Morgan that she herself acknowledged was not good.
Yes, the USWNT should have had more goals. But this was an otherwise commanding performance. It’s also something the USWNT can build on, rather than having to scramble to figure out something else that might work.
“Top to bottom, we were dominant. That’s what I like to see,” Rapinoe said. “We held the ball really well, had a lot of different chances from different angles and were able to keep a clean sheet. It’s a good first start.”
Once this team finds its groove – and it isn’t far off – look out.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.