Are we really going to blame USWNT players for scoring, celebrating goals?
REIMS, France -- The last team off the field four years ago in Canada, when it hung around amid the confetti to celebrate its third world championship, the United States was the last contender to take the field in the 2019 Women's World Cup.
The Americans looked like a team that was tired of waiting.
Paced by a record-matching performance from Alex Morgan, whose five goals equaled Michelle Akers' for the most by an American in a World Cup, the U.S. women routed Thailand 13-0 on Tuesday. The final tally set a record for the most prolific offensive performance in tournament history.
Playing in front of a sold-out crowd at the Stade Auguste-Delaune that sounded and looked as if it were watching a game in Portland, Oregon, or New York rather than the north of France, the United States took the game to Thailand from the opening whistle.
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But by the end of the match, some were asking, how many goals is too many goals?
The U.S. women had the game comfortably in hand a few minutes into the second half, when Samantha Mewis put the Americans up 4-0. The game was long since settled by the time Mewis and Rose Lavelle scored within two minutes of each other to make it 7-0 with more than 30 minutes to play.
On and on, wave after wave, the United States created more chances and goals until it had topped the 11-0 record win Germany put on Argentina in the 2007 World Cup.
But to put blame on the United States ignores two obvious points. First, the Americans didn't make the rules under which the number of goals scored is part of deciding the outcome of the tournament. Goal differential counts. The U.S. women want to win its group. Unlike just about any other sport, the Americans have a vested interest in running up the score.
And second, it isn't the United States' fault it can't clear its bench. It is allowed three subs. It used three subs.
"If this is 10-0 in a men's World Cup, are we getting the same questions?" U.S. coach Jill Ellis asked after receiving repeated queries about the score. "I think a World Cup, it is about competing, it is about peaking, it is about priming your players ready for the next game."
But beyond that, why is it the obligation of the U.S. team to act in the interest of creating a picture of a falsely level playing field? Why shouldn't FIFA or the Asian Confederation get blamed for not doing more to promote the women's game in places where it lags behind?
Are we really going to blame players for celebrating a goal, in many cases in their first World Cup, instead of looking at the underlying reasons for the disparity in the first place?
It's understandable that Thai players looked stunned and embarrassed after the game, far from the joyous scenes after they beat Ivory Coast in their World Cup debut four years ago. It is unfortunate for them. But it's also competition. Both sides of it.
"Obviously, we have the utmost respect for everyone we play," U.S. star Megan Rapinoe said. "But it's the World Cup, and that's part of it. That's part of growing the game and growing the pool."
Here is a breakdown of the U.S. women's total shot location (40), goal placements (13) and key numbers from the match:
- The Americans' 13 goals against Thailand were the most in a game in men's or women's World Cup history.
- The United States men's national team has scored 12 World Cup goals in the past 6,202 days.
- Morgan is just the second player in Women's World Cup history to score five goals in a single game. Akers was the first in 1991.
Morgan makes the stage hers
Earlier in the week, a French journalist asked Morgan how she felt about being the most popular non-French women's player in France. As beloved as the home team is, she might have won over even a few of the locals Tuesday.
Morgan has talked openly about the disappointment she felt with her own performance in the 2016 Rio Olympics, but she nearly matched the entire U.S. goal output in that tournament with her quintet of goals against Thailand. Better still, some of her best moves on the night came with the ball at her feet while trying to set up teammates. She was fully integrated into an attack operating at something close to its peak. That isn't a coincidence.
"To tie Michelle Akers' record is obviously incredible," Morgan said. "But even more than that, I think that this was such a great team performance for us. We were able to execute on so many chances that we had, and we showed just how diverse our attack really is. And we know that every goal counts in the group stages, and that's why we had to keep going."
In addition to Morgan's five goals, Lavelle and Mewis each scored twice, and Lindsey Horan, Carli Lloyd, Mallory Pugh and Rapinoe added single goals.
The kids are all right
The United States is the oldest team in this year's World Cup, thanks to a core of veterans already in their 30s (a group that will include Morgan by the time the World Cup ends). But it's also a team that featured six players making their World Cup debut in Tuesday's starting lineup.
None of them looked nervous. And the midfield looked positively precocious.
With Julie Ertz starting in the back line in place of Becky Sauerbrunn, the entire midfield of Horan, Lavelle and Mewis started in their first World Cup game. All helped fuel the U.S. attack, well before each got on the score sheet. With Horan looking a lot like former standout Lauren Holiday in the deep midfield, sending passes around the field like a quarterback, Mewis and Lavelle brought their own considerable attacking skills to bear.
"It gave us all a good feeling to know that we could contribute at this level," Mewis said. "I know that for all of us, this has been a dream for so long. And to be able to contribute to the team out there and feel like we were doing something right felt really good."
It might also reveal something that after scoring a goal and drawing gasps of approval from many in the stands with some of her footwork, Lavelle wasn't ready to bask in the praise.
"I just think I didn't connect some of my passes," Lavelle said. "And I don't think I was as clean, technically, as I should be."
There is always next time. And there will be many next times for this group of midfielders.
The opener the U.S. women needed
The camera on the world feed found Hope Solo, the former U.S. goalkeeper, a few times in the arena, working as an analyst for the BBC. Solo's recent criticism of Ellis was the closest thing to a dark cloud over this team entering the opener. In making it all about the coach, Solo also boosted the idea that this was a team without its own identity, a team without the strong personalities to win anyway. Well, this looked like a team the United States is going to enjoy watching -- and getting to know in the coming weeks.
"I don't know if we need to really make a statement," Rapinoe said. "We're us -- I feel like it's always on our backs anyway. ... But yeah, we wanted to have a good performance and have a good feeling, obviously. We know the competition will be much stronger from here on out and, hopefully, once we get to the knockout stages."
The United States was always going to win this game, probably comfortably. But in making sure of success by playing so aggressively early -- in a tournament in which many top teams have struggled to squeeze out wins -- this U.S. team created breathing room for itself.
Ertz buys time for Sauerbrunn
Sauerbrunn, a veteran defender, was held out because of a minor quad injury, but team officials said before the game that she was at 95%, and the decision to sit her (she was in uniform and available) was precautionary. The U.S. women don't play again until Sunday, giving her five extra days to recover. Without saying as much, the message was essentially that someone who played every minute in the 2015 World Cup and 2016 Olympics could have played in a game in which the United States needed its defense.
And no, there wasn't a lot of defending for Ertz or anyone else to do. Yet, in anchoring a back line that had more than 300 collective caps -- but only a fraction of them as defenders -- Ertz looked the part of veteran leader after coming on as a young sensation in 2015. And in acting as the go-between for instructions from the bench and shifting to a holding midfield role at times, allowing the U.S. women to play out of a 3-4-3 for stretches, she highlighted this team's versatility.
The U.S. women are better with Sauerbrunn. They're also better for knowing they have a darn good deputy.
All signs still point to a showdown with Sweden
It looked for much of the evening elsewhere as if Chile might copy fellow South American entry Argentina in springing a group-changing surprise. But where Argentina was able to hold on for a draw against Japan on Monday, Chile conceded two late goals after a weather delay and lost to Sweden in Group F.
That means the U.S. women and Sweden are still on track for a group finale that will settle who finishes first (and takes a road that could lead through Paris and a quarterfinal against France). And with the goal differential it built up Tuesday, the United States could enter the finale knowing a draw would be enough to top the group.
Sweden again goes first Sunday, playing Thailand in Nice. The U.S. women then play Chile in Paris.