So when the Group E opener Saturday ended in just a 3-0 victory against World Cup newcomer Vietnam, there was a sense the Americans had clearly done enough to earn three points but had not come anywhere near championship level.
“It was a good starting point for our team,” said forward Sophia Smith, who scored twice in the first half. “I also know we have a lot more that we can give, a lot more to do, little things to work on.”
Like finish their scoring chances.
“I could have scored maybe three or four more,” said midfielder Lindsey Horan, who had one goal.
“I definitely had a couple I should have put away, for sure,” said forward Alex Morgan, whose missteps included a penalty kick.
“We obviously could have put away a few more chances, myself included,” said Smith, who almost completed a hat trick early in the second half.
Coach Vlatko Andonovski gave his team high marks for overall play but winced at the misses, saying, “Unfortunately, we didn’t capitalize on all the opportunities — great opportunities that we created.”
The Americans had 27 attempts but only eight on target. Thirteen missed the mark and six were blocked by defenders. They also had nine corner kicks. Vietnam registered zeros across the board.
Such inefficiency against stronger opposition, such as 2019 runner-up Netherlands on Thursday in Wellington, could prove costly in a tight contest. That was not a fear Saturday. Once Smith scored in the 14th minute, the outcome was all but settled; it was just a matter of how large the lead would grow. Turns out, it didn’t get very big.
“Obviously we’d like to finish a few more of our chances we had, a lot more chances that we would want back,” forward Megan Rapinoe said. “But top to bottom, we were dominant. That’s what I like to see.”
Andonovski saw several positive developments.
Six starters — and eight players overall — made World Cup debuts, including Smith, 22, Naomi Girma, 23, Trinity Rodman, 21, and Alyssa Thompson, 18. Savannah DeMelo, 25, made her first career start — two weeks after making her U.S. debut.
From a game management standpoint, it went about as well as possible. Comfortably ahead, Andonovski rested Morgan the last 28 minutes and provided playing time to Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle — both of whom are working themselves back into peak shape after recovering from injuries.
Until Saturday, Lavelle had gone 3½ months without competitive action for the national team or her NWSL club, OL Reign. She seems far enough along to warrant consideration for a starting role against the Dutch. (Her footwork was excellent and she hit the crossbar on a shot from distance.) When the sides met four years ago in France, Lavelle scored a sensational goal to all but secure the title.
Julie Ertz, a veteran of the 2015 and 2019 championship teams, made a seamless return to the backline after years as a defensive midfielder. With Becky Sauerbrunn (foot injury) unavailable for the World Cup, Ertz now seems to be the defensive leader for this tournament, partnering with Girma.
“Julie has played center back in big games,” Andonovski said. “When we knew Becky was not going to make it, [using Ertz] was something we looked into even deeper.”
Julie Ertz isn’t done yet
Well before training camp opened June 26, the coaching staff worked with Ertz using video analysis to prepare her for the likelihood of starting on the backline.
“Throughout my entire time with the national team, you always kind of have to be versatile,” she said. “We’ve been working on the possibilities of being [on the backline] for a while, at least since I’ve been back” with the program in the spring after a year on maternity leave.
Though the U.S. defense was not tested Saturday, “I know the backline is just going to get better and better,” Andonovski said. “Girma looked like she had three World Cups behind her.”
Andonovski will need the attack to improve — or at least execute more often like it did in scoring the first goal Saturday. Horan completed a terrific no-look pass to Morgan, whose clever flick at the top of the box unlocked Vietnam’s deep-lying defense and allowed Smith to work her magic.
“They were organized, they were disciplined, they were tough, they fought hard,” Andonovski said of Vietnam’s defense. “So breaking them down in the way we did in that moment was not easy.”
Smith scored again just before halftime, though the goal was initially ruled offside, then overturned on video replay.
His team will face a fresh set of challenges against the Netherlands, which will not employ such conservatives tactics and does possess far greater talent than Vietnam.
“I am not worried about it. I don’t think anyone on the staff is worried,” Andonovski said of the faulty shooting. “Actually we are very encouraged by the style of soccer we displayed.”