Saturday's warm-up did not go as planned for the United States women's national team. Forward Alex Morgan felt tightness in her lower leg and had to be removed from the starting lineup minutes before first kick.
There is nothing ideal about losing the team's top active goal-scorer for any sort of injury-related reason. This was, however, the type of crisis management the U.S. might have to expect at the World Cup in six months. Simulating a World Cup is the entire reason they made the journey to New Zealand, which will co-host the summer tournament with Australia.
In stepped Ashley Hatch, who had not started in over six months and appeared to have slipped down the depth chart to the third-choice No. 9. With Morgan pulled from the lineup and Sophia Smith, the 2022 National Women's Soccer League MVP, already at home due to a minor injury, Hatch was the next player up on Saturday.
Twenty-two minutes into the match, Hatch scored the opening goal of a 5-0 U.S. victory over New Zealand (the second of two friendlies this week between the sides) calmly finishing off a nice sequence from the U.S. that developed on the team's left side.
"It's the opportunity that everyone wants, to start for this team," Hatch told the HBO Max broadcast at halftime. "So, just always ready and always prepared."
Hatch's goal was significant personally for the 27-year-old forward on a quest to make her first World Cup roster, and it was one of several positive developments on Saturday for a U.S. team still trying to figure out the best version of itself.
Just 72 hours earlier, the U.S. played a disjointed, dull, scoreless first half against New Zealand, choosing to drop back its line of confrontation. Second-half changes brought vast improvement and four goals scored, but Wednesday's match continued the trend of incomplete performances, especially worrisome against an overmatched New Zealand team missing several starters because the games fell outside of a FIFA window.
Saturday's performance left a completely different feeling. The Americans were in control from the opening whistle and for the first time in a long time looked like the confident, high-pressing team that won the past two World Cups. Reminding themselves of that identity is an important takeaway from this January trip, said U.S. midfielder Rose Lavelle, who scored in the 2019 World Cup final.
The U.S. scored in the 12th minute or earlier in each game except the final at the 2019 World Cup. The team's high press suffocated opponents early and gave the Americans leads that allowed them to dictate matches. Much of the core of that team is missing from the current squad, and that relentlessness is no longer a defining characteristic.
"One of the biggest things is start out strong," Lavelle said. "We had a slow start [on Wednesday]. I think when we come out strong and we play like that, I think it's going to be harder [for opponents] to keep up, so I think that's the biggest thing. When I think of what we did in 2019, I think a lot of it was we had a really strong start and we would score really early. I definitely think that's an emphasis for us."
Lavelle is now a veteran on this U.S. team and a focal point of the attack. Her role was significantly different on Saturday.
Lindsey Horan played in the first match of the week before returning to her club, Lyon, as part of an agreement with U.S. Soccer, leaving a void for the U.S. in the box-to-box midfield role on Saturday. In a twist, Lavelle -- who is the team's creative, playmaking midfielder -- shifted back into the more defensive role and played deeper than she ever has for the U.S., often collecting the ball off of a center-back to turn and pick out a pass. Ashley Sanchez started in Lavelle's usual No. 10 role on Saturday.
Sanchez and Lavelle have played as dual No. 10s in the past, but this was a different look entirely, one that saw Lavelle in a double-pivot role with Andi Sullivan. The changes appeared to bring the best out of all three individuals on the day and marked a vast improvement from Wednesday's experimental midfield that thrust Taylor Kornieck into her first international start in an unfamiliar position (defensive midfield).
"Having [Horan] here was important for the team, but also important for the player that will step in that role when she is not here, just to see what the expectations are and what that player needs to do," U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski told media ahead of Saturday's match. "The way we see it, it's just an opportunity for us to see someone else, but also an opportunity for someone else to showcase her ability and hopefully earn a spot for a next one."
Lavelle will not often play as deep as she did on Saturday, but Andonovski should come away feeling confident that he can deploy that midfield system when needed, possibly against a weaker World Cup group stage opponent such as Vietnam (and perhaps with Catarina Macario playing next to Lavelle, once Macario returns this spring from a torn ACL). That Saturday's midfield three looked so strong, period, is encouraging given the unit's struggles at times over the past year.
Internal victories will be the main on-field takeaways from this trip across the globe for Andonovski and U.S. players. Yes, the opponent was one the U.S. is expected to beat, as has now happened in 19 of 21 meetings. The U.S. outshot an overmatched New Zealand side 22-0 on Saturday.
The purpose of the team's jaunt to New Zealand was twofold: provide a young, relatively inexperienced roster simulations of World Cup scheduling in stadiums where they will play all their group games and get the World Cup year off on the right foot with more cohesive play.
Wednesday's effort was rusty, which is a January tradition even for games historically played on home soil. Saturday, however, brought encouragement, from Hatch and Lavelle in their roles, to Mallory Swanson (née Pugh) scoring again to continue her red-hot form. There was combination play in the buildup to goals -- especially Hatch's opener -- that saw the U.S. put together sequences that have been missing lately. Crystal Dunn and Trinity Rodman combined on the left flank, finding central midfielders to form multiple passing triangles before Hatch's finish.
No, New Zealand is not England or Spain or Germany, all of which exposed weaknesses of the U.S. in recent victories. January of a World Cup year is about fixing problems for when it counts in the summer, regardless of the opponent. Stiffer tests await next month against Brazil, Canada, and Japan -- three of the world's top 11 teams. Saturday's performance was a step in the right direction for the U.S.
"I think it was two good games just to get out of the way," U.S. defender Sofia Huerta said. "Some cobwebs, it's the offseason, and just get ready for the year."