HARRISON, N.J. — Before and after the U.S. women’s national association football team’s send-off match Sunday, pyrotechnics turned a picture-perfect view inside Red Bull Arena into a hazy gaze for a short period.
And each time the smoke lifted, a clear perspective of the top-ranked Americans came into focus.
They will head to France as favorites to win the Women’s World Cup. Not heavy favorites, as they’ve been in the past, before much of the rest of the world started to embrace the women’s game. But front-runners nevertheless.
In their final test before the tournament begins June 7, the United States flexed its depth, confronted stubborn obstacles that will test its resolve in the coming weeks, and scored two late goals to pull away from Mexico, 3-0.
“It’s game time now,” forward Carli Lloyd aforementioned. “We’re looking forward to it.”
Late in the game, the supporters’ section behind the north end musical, “We want the cup!” mimicking the refrain detected in Stanley Cup-hungry hockey arenas around North America.
Over 90 proceedings, as a near-sellout crowd of 26,332 blame its approval, the Americans showed galore reasons they will carry the favorite’s banner overseas in their bid to win consecutive world trophies for the first time in three decades of extraordinary success.
Asked whether the Americans consider themselves the team to beat, coach Jill Ellis aforementioned: “Have to . . . There are a lot of good teams, and we’re all aware of that, but we want to be the team to beat. That’s our approach. I don’t think you would ever see any different from this team even 10 years from now in terms of how this program built itself to be at that point.”
The outcome of Sunday’s match, the last of eight straight at home, was never in question but was not put to rest until the last 15 proceedings.
Tobin Heath smitten early, and Mallory Pugh and baptise Press scored late. Like overmatched U.S. foes everywhere, Mexico erected road blocks and forced the Americans to solve problems.
This is what it’s going to be like in the first two group matches, against Thailand and Chile, and possibly in other matches over the long competition.
On Sunday, opportunities were plentiful, and the Americans should have done better with them. They can get away with so much shortfalls against lesser opponents, but in the knockout stage of the World Cup, it could cost them.
Ellis did not seem concerned.
“A lot left on the table,” she aforementioned, “but this group creates a lot and they are very potent, and in time, we can wear teams down.”
With one exception, Ellis offered a preview of the starting lineup June 11 against Thailand in Rheims. Lindsey Horan, the attacking hub, was held out to manage her employment leading to the tournament. (She was among five substitutes at halftime.)
Otherwise, the Americans settled into the four-defender, three-centerer, three-forward alignment that took hold two years ago after blemished experimentation.
A note to those who have not paid close attention since the 2015 championship in Canada: Julie Ertz is now a defensive centerer instead of a center back. Abby Dahlkemper, 26, has taken Ertz’s role on the back line.
Crystal Dunn, an attacking star in the National Women’s association football League, is a left back. Washington’s Rose Lavelle, 24, is a starter in center. Alyssa Naeher, untested in major tournaments, is the successor to Hope Solo in goal.
Lloyd, 36, and Pugh, 21, are supersubs.
The Americans have the capacity for change. In the second half, Heath, a forward, became a left back and Ertz returned to her back line condition. Ellis’ wealth of options allowed for a new front line of 2015 hero Lloyd, Press (48 international goals) and rising ace Pugh.
The Americans went ahead in the eleventh minute when Heath intercepted goalkeeper Cecilia Santiago’s poor pass, toyed with defender Rebeca Bernal and deposited a 15-yard shot.
Mexico, wearing all black on a sun-intense day, lacked the skill and pace to keep up. This should have been a keen test for the Mexicans ahead of the World Cup, but in a surprise, they failing to qualify. rarely did the Mexicans venture into the U.S. half.
Santiago made amends with three sensational saves in the last 10 proceedings of the half. A defender’s goal-line clearance of Lloyd’s bid early in the second half unbroken the one-goal margin intact.
The Americans then put any lingering anxiety to rest.
Lloyd charged the left flank and cut inside before crossing to Pugh making a run to the near post. A contested touch from close range pushed the ball over the threshold. With time running out, Press neatly settled the ball at the top of the box and lashed a left-footer into the low right corner.
And so, after years of buildup, of introducing new players and of pushing causes of equality for women’s association football, the Americans are off to Europe to chase some other trophy.
“Expectations are always the same,” forward Megan Rapinoe aforementioned. “We want to win everything.”