It wasn't always pretty, but the United States women's national team got the three points against Australia, running out 3-1 winners after going into halftime at 1-1. Megan Rapinoe was the star of the day with a brace of goals and some sublime play between them, willing the USWNT to a good performance on the day.
The match got off to a shaky start for the United States. Australia pushed up aggressively and continuously got untracked runs on counter-attacks against the U.S. defense thanks to the American midfielders still being too high up the pitch to help out. Australia showed none of the nerves that many expected them to display against one of the best women's teams in the world, taking the game to them instead of sitting back and waiting to counter.
Of course, the USWNT is one of the world's best for a reason, and one of those reasons is Rapinoe. Some fancy footwork on the ball saw Rapinoe work her way through part of the Australia defense outside the box before she found the angle she wanted to shoot, uncurling a shot that deflected off an Australian player before banking into the goal. Rapinoe created the goal out of almost nothing -- one of her specialties -- and that crucial strike helped take some of the pressure off the U.S.
Australia didn't let their heads drop, keeping the speed up in their attack and forcing Hope Solo to make several excellent saves in goal to keep the U.S. lead intact. They were just able to keep Australia at bay in open play, but it was a set piece that ultimately did them in. In the 27th minute, the U.S. just couldn't get the ball fully clear, every try at it being won back by Australia and sent back in. Some sweet passing from the Matildas caught the U.S. women ball watching a bit, and Lisa De Vanna managed to sneak in towards the back post to get on the end of a pullback pass, with fullback Meghan Klingenberg nowhere in sight to keep her from slotting the ball home past Solo.
The match went back-and-forth a bit after that. Australia had more scoring chances, but the USWNT had the biggest -- and missed it when Abby Wambach couldn't direct a close-range header on goal, perhaps showing some of the rust many feared we'd see when she decided to sit out the NWSL season. That missed chance meant the match headed in to the half tied at 1-1, and with the run of play favoring Australia -- not a result anyone expected coming into the match.
The USWNT managed to spend more time on the ball and looked more threatening early in the second half, though they still struggled against Australia's explosive counter-attacks getting in behind the U.S. midfield and running free at their defense. That high-speed Australia attack ultimately cost them when Sydney Leroux found space to run onto a ball over the top, then looked back to see Christen Press finding some space of her own in front of goal to fire home Leroux's cross and put the United States ahead.
That was the moment when the USWNT really started to press their advantages in energy and fitness, starting to simply outrun and outwork a flagging Australia side. Rapinoe came up huge again, cutting in from the wing and making Laura Alleway look helpless as she worked her way into the box and lashed in a shot. At first blush, it looked like a bad choice with the angle and bodies in the way -- but it turned out her shot was perfectly placed and it nestled into the goal like it was meant to be there.
That was the last goal of the match, though not for lack of trying by the United States. It's a big result, overcoming a poor start to get all three points in their first group match. Now they need to get back to the training pitch and work out some of the issues that cropped up today, because they won't have as easy a time working through them against Sweden or Nigeria.
United States: Hope Solo; Ali Krieger, Becky Sauerbrunn, Julie Johnston, Meghan Klingenberg; Christen Press (Tobin Heath 68'), Lauren Holiday, Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe (Morgan Brian 87'); Sydney Leroux (Alex Morgan 79'), Abby Wambach
Goals: Rapinoe (12', 78'), Press (61')
Australia: Melissa Barbieri; Laura Alleway (Ashleigh Sykes 83'), Servet Uzunlar, Steph Catley, Elise Kellond-Knight; Caitlin Foord, Emily Van Egmond, Katrina Gorry (Allana Kennedy 80'); Samantha Kerr, Michele Heyman (Kyah Simon 68'), Lisa De Vanna
Goals: De Vanna (27')
1. Megan Rapinoe is a god on the pitch
Too often in this match, the USWNT made mistakes or just didn't look good. Then Rapinoe got on the ball, and all those bad moments faded away to memory. She single-handedly kept the United States' attack functioning, even beyond the two impressive goals she scored. Rapinoe dictated play and kept Australia's defense off-balance, and at times when no one else was looking confident on the pitch, Rapinoe would take over all on her own and make things happen. She is, unquestionably, the best player in the USWNT right now.
2. The USWNT midfield isn't working well
Playing two attack-minded players in central midfield is fine and dandy against a side in over their heads that the USWNT can just overwhelm. Against a team like Australia that's not afraid to attack through that soft defensive front, it's a disaster. Carli Lloyd and Lauren Holiday are both good players, but neither is an exceptional defender in any phase of the game, and Australia exploited that ruthlessly. There were too many untracked runs, missed chances to create turnovers and all-around poor play in the middle of the pitch when the U.S. didn't have the ball, and that's something that could really hold them back as this tournament progresses. If Jill Ellis doesn't sort her midfield out, the U.S. won't win their third World Cup title.
3. Australia are fast on the break
When Australia surged forward, they continuously seemed to catch the USWNT on the back foot, largely because it didn't seem like the U.S. women were prepared for just how fast their opponents would be. De Vanna showed that in a big way when she ran down Becky Sauerbrunn from 20 yards behind with both women sprinting to create a threat at goal, but she wasn't the only one showing off explosive speed. Samantha Kerr and substitute Kyah Simon both displayed impressive wheels, as did a number of other Australian players working their way up and down the pitch. In a tournament like this, speed can kill in a big way, and Australia could use that to cause problems for Sweden and Nigeria later in this group phase.