The U.S. national team doesn’t leave for Europe and this summer’s Women’s World Cup for another two weeks. That’s probably a good thing given the way the Americans played Sunday in a ragged 3-0 win over South Africa before a crowd of 22,788 at Levi’s Stadium.
The crowd was the largest for a national team game, men or women, this year, although it had plenty of room to move around in the 68,500-seat NFL stadium. And while the crowd was rewarded with the second two-goal game of Sam Mewis’ national team career, for much of the day it had little else to cheer from a U.S. team that didn’t really come alive until the final half-hour.
Which could mean something or could mean nothing at all, said Carli Lloyd, who has been through this World Cup countdown three times before.
“Each cycle we’ve been through, we’ve sort of been at a different stage,” Lloyd said. “There’s no real telling until we get over there. There’s some things that we can take away and learn. But we just have to continue to dig deep and just get better individually and collectively.
“There’s no reason to panic.”
But there is a lot to learn and there were some obvious lessons to be taken out of Sunday’s performance. South Africa, ranked 49th in the world, the second-worst ranking for a World Cup qualifier, stayed compact and kept as many as nine players behind the ball, absorbing pressure and frustrating a U.S. that struggled for a response.
The top-ranked Americans controlled the ball 70% of the time and had a 19-5 edge in shots against an opponent that, aside from the rare counterattack, rarely showed any interest in trying to score.
It’s a strategy the U.S. has seen before -- Sweden used it to eliminate the U.S. in the quarterfinals of the last Olympics — and the Americans can count on seeing it again in France, especially in their first two group-play matches against Thailand and Chile.
“That was a memory that was kind of burned into my head,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said of the Olympic debacle. “The game has just exponentially, tactically evolved. The things that teams throw at you now, the things that you have to adapt to, the things that you see.
“We’ve got to make sure that we have players that can break teams down.”
It probably wouldn’t have mattered how the South Africans defended in the first 20 minutes since the U.S., playing for the first time since the 23-woman World Cup roster was chosen, couldn’t get on the same page, sending passes into open spaces as often as it sent them to teammates.
“Those are all takeaways in terms of learning moments. Moments that you look at on film, moments that players experience,” Ellis said. “The first half looked sloppy. We were rusty.
By the middle of the first half, things began to click with Mewis — who was joined by former UCLA teammate Abby Dahlkemper in the starting lineup — giving the U.S. the only goal it would need in the 37th minute.
The sequence started with midfielder Rose Lavelle dribbling toward the penalty area box, drawing two South African defenders toward her. She then sent the ball between them for Mewis, who one-hopped a right-footed shot into the lower corner of the net from about 19 yards for her second goal of the year.
The U.S. was sharpest in the final 30 minutes when second-half substitute Megan Rapinoe, one of 17 players Ellis used, began to take over. It was her bending cross behind the defense that set up the second goal in the 78th minute, with Mewis charging into the center of the box to take the ball off the left hand of diving South African keeper Kaylin Swart and redirect it in.
“At halftime we were able to solve some things,” Mewis said. “In a World Cup, something like that is going to be really important, being able to make adjustments on the fly.”
“I think we learned a lot from our performance,” she added. “We were able to grow as the game went on.”
Lloyd, who entered the game in the 60th minute, closed the scoring two minutes into stoppage time, fighting off a defender to swipe the ball into the net with her left foot.
“Doing my thing. Coming on, trying to make a difference,” she said.
Speaking of making a difference, the U.S. has two more weeks and two more games, with New Zealand and Mexico, to get things right before heading to France and defending the World Cup title Lloyd helped it win four years ago.
“We’ve got two more games to fine-tune things,” she said. “My focus is now on New Zealand and nothing past that. It’s another good game for us to work on things and keep improving.”