Jill Ellis probably won’t need a winter coat when the Women’s World Cup kicks off in France this June, but the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) head coach was probably happy to be bundled up on Monday night as she guided her side to a 1-0 victory in front of fans huddled into Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium for the last stop on the three-match SheBelieves Cup tournament featuring the American and Brazilian sides plus national teams from Japan and England.
The attendance (14,009) was a record for Tampa, where Raymond James has now hosted five USWNT games.
The U.S. entered Monday night’s matchup without a win in the tourney (the team played Japan and England to 2-2 draws on February 27 in Pennsylvania and March 2 in Tennessee). In fact, the tourney had already been decided after England beat Japan 3-0 in the matinee match, which gave them the rights to take the SheBelieves trophy home for 2019.
Playing for second — and dealing with temperatures that dipped into the low 50s — didn’t seem to bother fans, however, and the belly of Raymond James was filled with the sound of beating drums and the oohs and aahs of a home crowd watching their three-time World Cup champs learn more about themselves en route to taking the world stage in a June 11 World Cup-opening match against Thailand at Auguste Delaune Stadium (just over 300 miles Northwest of Stade de Lyon, where the 2019 Women’s World Cup Final will be played on July 7).
Among the crowd in Tampa on Monday where thousands of young girls and women with dream cards adorned with reasonable wishes (“I want to be a gymnastics coach,” “I want to play on the USMNT”), loftier ones (“I want to be the first astronaut to play soccer on the moon” — soccer with a rock doesn’t count though, right?) and others that you’d think would should be achievable in this lifetime (“I wish for equal pay”).
Pregame fireworks and an in-house DJ added to the revelry and almost masked the reality that youth soccer participation in America is declining at an alarming rate. There are plenty of places to point fingers on that issue. Former USWNT goalkeeper Hope Solo has said that her family would not have been able to put her in soccer if she was a kid today. The cost to play club soccer, Solo told the New York Times, has alienated Hispanic, black, rural and underrepresented communities. “Soccer, right now, has become a rich, white-kid sport,” she said.
Still, there were plenty of reasons to look beyond the negatives off the field and just focus on the team’s task over the next five games leading up to World Cup. Just ask USWNT captain Alex Morgan, who found herself on the receiving end of a Tobin Heath pass which was nearly chipped over Brazilian keeper Aline Villares Reis in the 20th minute (Heath ended up finding the rebound and putting it home to score the game-winner).
“I wasn't surprised to see her in that position because I know Tobin is really good face up, taking on defenders. I just tried to make myself a possibility for her to pass if she wanted to,” Morgan said in postgame comments. “Us forwards, we always look at the percentage of us shooting versus passing and what the percentage of a goal is higher, so I thought it was a great pass, and obviously her following up for that goal was great.”
Morgan also shook off the disappointment of playing to a draw against England, no. 4 in the world, in the USWNT’s previous game. “There’s not much difference at that level,” Morgan said, adding that watching England hoist the SheBelieves Cup in postgame ceremonies was a sight that she hopes to avoid this summer. But in the meantime she knows there’s a lot to work on.
“I did not expect the goalkeeper to come out as quickly, so I tried to chip her, which didn't work out,” Morgan said of the shot that nearly became her 100th career goal for the U.S. “But it fell to Tobin, so I think we found ourselves in that position quite a few times in the first half. I think we should've converted a little bit more so we could have sealed the game earlier.”
The USWNT’s builds on the successes and shortcomings of tonight’s win on April 4 when it faces Australia during another home game in Colorado. Flights from Tampa to France for the USWMNT’s first World Cup match on June 11 start at $500.