SAN JOSE, Calif. — A sell-out crowd of 18,000 filled Avaya Stadium for the facility's first international soccer match and they were treated to a comprehensive 3-0 victory by the U.S. women's national team against Ireland in a tune-up match for this summer's FIFA World Cup in Canada.
Abby Wambach scored two goals in the first half to pace the USA as the Irish were playing on their back feet the entire match. Defender Julie Johnston added an acrobatic goal in the second half, her third goal in as many games for the national team. Ireland kept the game close through the effort of goalkeeper Niamh Reid-Burke, who made seven saves on the day.
"We created a lot of chances," said U.S. head coach Jill Ellis. "Their goalkeeper came up big, she was great. Did we want more? Of course, we wanted more. It was a challenging game, we've had a bunch of them this year in terms of teams that put a lot of numbers behind the ball, but we always find ways to break them down."
The U.S. strategy seemed one that was focused on a direct attack, carrying the ball through the center of the field as the first option and using the wings as a secondary option. Overall, while it seemed a work in progress, the result was one that Carli Lloyd, who assisted on the second goal of the game, knows the team can grow on.
"These are the games in which you try things," said Carli Lloyd. "If it doesn't work, then you reassess. Getting it in quickly and getting it out wide were the keys today, and with three great goals, I would say it was a decent performance."
Ireland was definitely the second best team on the field Sunday afternoon, and it showed at times that, unlike the U.S. team which all make a living from soccer, they feature only three players that play professionally.
"The USA is a top, top team," said Ireland head coach Sue Ronan. "They are on the way to the World Cup and are obviously one of the favorites. They are at the top of their preparation right now, so it was always going to be difficult for us."
The U.S. players all had their mothers in attendance for the Mother's Day match at Avaya Stadium, as television broadcaster Fox Sports arranged to have them travel to San Jose for the weekend. An on-field pregame ceremony punctuated the special moment for both players and moms.
"It was such a fun day today for them to be here," said Wambach, U.S. Soccer's player of the match, "especially for my mom, because she has a lot of kids, a lot of grand-kids that she could be spending it with, so it was awesome that she chose to spend it with me for this game."
On the day she celebrated her 100th cap with the national team, which she earned in the team's last match against New Zealand, Megan Rapinoe nearly opened the scoring for the U.S. In the 2nd minute, she blasted a 25 yard shot from the left slot that Irish goalkeeper Niamh Reid-Burke did well to turn around her near post. Within the same minute Rapinoe had a second bite of the cherry, rocketing a shot from inside the area that glanced off the top of the crossbar and into the LOBINA terraces.
A special day for Rapinoe also included being on the receiving end of a nasty challenge by Ireland defender Aine O'Gorman in the 19th minute. The U.S.'s lady of honor was upended just in front of the bench area that the San Jose Earthquakes call home, and the Irish captain was shown a yellow card for her infraction.
It was Christen Press' turn to show some magic to the sold-out Avaya Stadium crowd, as she received a well-weighted pass on the right wing from Amy Rodriguez and drove the ball into the area. After sidestepping her defender, and eschewing the opportunity to go to ground after being nicked on the leg, Press cut back inside and fired on target. But Reid-Burke was up for the challenge and she managed to get just enough on the attempt to deflect it wide of the mark.
"It ticked me off that I couldn't put one in," said Press. "I was knocking on the door a few times, and I definitely want to put those opportunities away. That's my job."
Wambach had a solid header on the ensuing corner kick, but sent the ball into the side netting.
The crowd, almost all decked out in the red, white, and blue of their beloved national team, were growing restless as the first half drew on. Goalkeeper Hope Solo, resplendent in all-red, had little to do as she was serenaded by the American Outlaws behind the stadium's closed-end goal without interruption. Center backs Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston spent most of the first 45 minutes basking in the sun in the center circle.
And then the floodgates opened. Rapinoe had a well taken volley booted to safety by a Reid-Burke kick-save in the 42nd minute, setting up the most unusual of corner kicks for the U.S. women.
The inswinger delivery to the far post was contested by the U.S., but it was met first by Irish midfielder Ruesha Littlejohn. Her poor clearance was destined to be an own-goal, but the ball smashed off of defender Meabh De Burca guarding the far post. Nearly knocked out by the impact of the ball, De Burca collapsed to the ground and was quickly attended to by her goalkeeper. Unfortunately for Ireland, the play was still live, and Press collected the rebound and fed Wambach for the easiest of finishes and a 1-0 lead.
"They had a ton of numbers around the ball, we were knocking on the door, and everything was getting deflected," said Press. "There was an attempt at a clearance and it hit someone in the face and popped out to me. I was at a wide angle, so I looked across the goal and Abby was wide open, yelling for the ball, and I knew, no bounce, no curl, just put it on the ground and she would put it in."
Wamback doubled the U.S. women's advantage three minutes later as she headed a perfect cross from Carli Lloyd safely past the Irish 'keeper. Wambach's first half brace raised her international career goals scored total to 180. Fortunately for Ireland, the halftime whistle sounded before Wambach could add any more, and the teams entered the locker rooms with the score 2-0 to the USA.
"I felt that as soon as we scored, we were going to score again," said Wambach. "It's halfway defeating to get scored on by us because most teams in the world know it is difficult to score goals against us."
The third U.S. goal would come within 10 minutes of the restart, but not before Press made the Irish defense sweat with two excellent opportunities. The first came in the 52nd minute when the Stanford University product deftly rounded the goalkeeper and sent in a tight-angle shot from the byline. Defender Megan Campbell got a foot to the ball to clear it off the line. Press was back at two minutes later rifling an attempt that was goal bound until Reid-Burke deflected the ball up and off the top of the cross bar. It was all a prelude to an excellent piece of individual athleticism.
With Lauren Holiday seemingly delivering an innocuous corner kick to the near post, Ireland's defense hesitated when it appeared their goalkeeper had a bead on the ball. Instead, flying in with an acrobatic volley was defender Julie Johnston to spear the ball into the net for a 3-0 lead.
"I just ran through to the near post and Cheney played a perfect ball," said Johnston. "I couldn't get my head to it, so I tried with my toe, and I think my pinky touched it just enough to get it in, so I'll take that."
It was Johnston's third goal in as many games, as the center back netted against France in the Algarve Cup in March and against New Zealand in an April friendly.
"It's pretty remarkable, but the services I am getting are perfect," said Johnston. "So I am always happy to finish them when I can. I am enjoying every minute of it."
In the 63rd minute, a scary collision between Wambach and Reid-Burke left the U.S. forward on the floor with a bloodied nose, but after a brief retreat to the bench to clean up -- and after a quick thumbs up to her mom in the crowd -- she was back on the field and at the tip of the USA attack.
"At this stage, going into the World Cup, you can either get x-rays or scans or whatnot," said Wambach after the game, "but if you're not going to do anything about it, then what's the point. It doesn't matter if its broken or not. I'm pushing forward."
The remainder of the match played out as predictable as a 3-0 match could be expected to go as the U.S. continued to press ahead with numbers and the Irish stayed compact in defense. Solo, who must have felt that way the entire afternoon from her vantage point in the U.S. goal, only made three touches on the ball all game. With her energy saved, the goalkeeper was well rested and celebrated the impressive victory when it was whistled done.
On the day, the U.S. out shot Ireland 26 to 0 and forced the opposing goalkeeper to make seven saves. When it comes to the upcoming World Cup, the U.S. will need do better against competition that will be a step up from the Irish, something that was acknowledged after the game.
"We just have to be a little sharper in our goal-zone as we call it, inside the 18-yard line, inside the six-yard box," said Wambach, "and I think that will come in the course of the next couple weeks."
It is a good sign for the team's hopes in Canada this summer that its talisman forward is not yet content with her play. But, these are the moments that great players prepare for, and Wambach is no exception.
"Abby is a unique player," said Lloyd. "She steps it up a couple notches right before a big tournament, and I never had any doubts about her that she'd find her way. She has been working really hard, and she is finally looking like herself. Two great finishes by her, she's a great leader out there, I love playing with her, and it's awesome to have her out there. She comes up big all the time for us."
The U.S. women's national team continues its pre-World Cup tour with a match against Mexico on May 17 at the StubHub Center in Carson, CA.