The American women’s national team does something it traditionally does not do quite often: It is on its way abroad to play a few friendly matches against a tough opponent on hostile grass. In this case, it’s Australia, a team that has been steadily rising thanks to the talent of players like Samantha Kerr, Caitlin Foord and Ellie Carpenter.
Fresh from a disappointing Olympics over the summer, these games – Friday at. 23:00 ET and then Tuesday at. 04.05. ONE (stream the second match LIVE on ESPN) will not be easy for USWNT, but that’s the whole point. The Americans want these games in Australia to be tough – and players are unlikely to admit this part if they lose one or both games, even better. This is because losses pave the way for winning, as we have seen time and time again with USWNT.
Consider this: When he arrived at the Tokyo Olympics earlier this year, head coach Vlatko Andonovski had never lost a match since taking the helm of the USWNT, and the team ran in a 44-match unbeaten streak when it arrived in Japan. Of course, it did not go very well.
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In retrospect, is it so strange that the American players looked fragile in their opening match at the Olympics when Sweden beat them in a masterful show? The American players had not experienced the sting of a loss for too long, and USWNT’s expulsion matches before the Olympics were on American soil in front of a packed home crowd – something many teams in the Olympics could not enjoy due to the pandemic.
These games in Australia, which are open to fans, will be USWNT’s first time playing in front of away fans since the World Cup more than two years ago in France, where a significant US contingent traveled anyway to watch the matches. USWNT’s last time playing an away game against a hostile crowd outside a major tournament was in Europe in January 2019, including a 3-1 loss to France.
That trip to France Lindsay Horan remembers well, of course. When asked by ESPN what’s different when she’s playing in front of away fans, she can not help but mention that loss. “It’s different – you go into the match and it’s harder ever to play in an outdoor stadium,” Horan said. “I think the last time I remember doing that was in France before the World Cup and it’s hard when they have a 12th man.”
Jill Ellis, the former US coach, has directly credited the loss for allowing the USWNT to overcome a slow start in Canada and win the World Cup in 2015. The Americans went to Brazil in December 2014 and lost, and then to France in February 2015 and lost again. “I wanted them to fight,” Ellis said of their trip to Brazil in an exclusive interview. “It would be a challenge. It was hot, unfavorable and hard and we lost the match. From there I took them to France and we fought, we lost.”
“In these hardships, we learned more about ourselves,” she added. “I would say that without these matches and losses, I do not think we will win the World Cup.”
Andonovski could only do so much before the Olympics in Tokyo because of the COVID-19 pandemic – he had been at work only months before sports and travel virtually shut down. But now he hopes to expand USWNT’s horizons, especially as he brings more young people into the fold. His team in Australia includes 12 players with 10 internationals or less, including five players without restriction.
“It is important that we travel outside the country and we experience some adversity and experience an environment where opponents have that support,” Andonovski said. “It’s important not just to experience it, but to be in a place or in the country that will host the next big event, the World Cup in 2023. So hopefully in the future we will be able to do it more often, “than we’ve been for the last 18 months or so. It’s important, especially for players who have never experienced anything like it before.”
While losses may be the best for USWNT in the long run, fans have never tolerated it particularly well. In 2017, when USWNT suffered back-to-back losses at home for the first time in 17 years, some fans responded by urging Ellis to be fired using the hashtag #FireJillEllis if that was not clear enough. Beware that Ellis had won a world championship for the United States only two years before: USWNT fans are used to winning, especially at home.
“Everyone is just so used to winning everything and I think if we want to win the World Cup then things like this have to happen,” Allie Long told me at the time. “I love that the fans are angry. It shows so much passion.”
Her words, of course, voted in the end. USWNT, including Long, stormed its way through France in 2019 and became the first team to ever win back-to-back world championships for women. Ellis had repeated the same formula that she gave the credit for winning the World Cup four years earlier: five months before the World Cup in 2019, she took USWNT to Europe for friendly matches, and they lost – a positive sign, it turned out, and it’s easy for to see why the losses help.
If loss is to be an opportunity to make a road trip worth it, then Australia is as good an opponent as anyone. The Matildas, as they are known, have already been on the rise due to an emergence of raw talent led by Samantha Kerr, who at times over the last many years has been considered the best striker on the planet. She has a new talent group that the Australian coach Tony Gustavsson is transforming from a direct counter-attacking team to a possession-based, high-pressure collective. It is still connected, but there are signs of progress.
Although football is a cruel game where the better side can still lose, nothing can force a reassessment or trigger a fire under a team like losing. But just playing in a different environment than the party atmosphere in American home games will be good for an American team that looked too complacent through the Olympics in Japan.
This trip to Australia is also remarkable in that it is USWNT’s first in 21 years. They visited Australia on three separate trips in 2000, including one that was part of a crucial boycott of American football, and the last one for the Sydney Olympics. There is no doubt that the World Cup for Women in 2023, to be held in Australia and New Zealand, is the reason for the trip, but getting out of the US may be the most important factor at the moment. Going back to the beginning of 2016, only 10 of USWNT’s 84 non-World Cup and non-Olympic matches have been played outside the United States. The rest is played at home.
Of course, playing abroad is not quite right. The United States used to go to Portugal annually for an invitation called the Algarve Cup, but it was a setting that provided little atmosphere and often under-powered opponents. The American Football Association decided to start its own tournament at the same time each year called The SheBelieves Cup. Unlike the Algarve Cup, the matches are played in three different cities in a competition format identical to the World Cup.
The SheBelieves Cup has become a more valuable test run for the real thing, even though the games are played on the stateside. But there is no repeat of a trip down under, in front of Australian fans eager for some revenge after USWNT’s beat Matildas in the bronze medal match at the Olympics in Tokyo.
The Australian Federation has said it has sold more than 35,000 tickets for Tuesday’s match in Sydney, which would set a new record as the largest audience to see Matildas in Australia. Horan knows that means many Australians are taking root against the Americans – but she loves it, she said. “I think it’s this cool feeling when you’re able to score on them or do something good and shut up their fans,” she said, smiling.
But then again, if Matildas has a good show, it wouldn’t be that bad in the long run either.