Never count the U.S. Women’s National Team out. Down by a goal in the dying minutes, the USA rallied for a thrilling comeback victory to top New Zealand 2-1 in their first international friendly of 2012.
Of course, comebacks are nothing new for the U.S. In the World Cup it was a 122nd minute header by Abby Wambach against Brazil in the quarterfinals that equalized the match at one a piece, sending it into a penalty kick shootout where the U.S. prevailed. Tonight, the stakes weren’t nearly as high, but with their backs against the wall, facing their first defeat on home soil since 2004, these women found a way to win.
Starting in her second straight match, Alex Morgan once again provided the spark, though this time it wasn’t so early. In their 4-0 victory over Canada in the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Final, Morgan sunk the match’s first goal in the fourth minute. This time, Morgan did what she has done best over the last year – find a way to finish.
In the 89th minute, with the U.S. down 1-0, on a last gasp effort, Morgan connected with a Megan Rapinoe cross from the right flank, heading it toward the left post. The ball appeared to bounce off the post and for a few moments it was questionable whether it crossed the line, but it was called a goal and the U.S. celebrated the equalizer.
Five minutes later, with stoppage time winding down to its final seconds — sound familiar? — a cross from Rachel Buehler from the left side connected with Wambach in the middle, who got her head on it to send it forward. This time it wasn’t a Wambach header that sealed the victory but one from young Alex Morgan. Just a few feet in front of the goal, she put her head on the ball from Abby and sent it toward the far post, where it bounced off and went in for the late winner.
For much of the match, it wasn’t so thrilling. After dominating their way through the Olympic Qualifiers, the U.S. looked sluggish and out of sync tonight, struggling to connect up front or put the finishing touches on the ball. New Zealand, however, was buoyed by excellent play from two Americans. Ali Riley, born in California to parents from New Zealand, kept the pressure on the U.S. right side for much of the first half, making it difficult to push forward or cross in from the end line. Goalkeeper Jenny Bindon, an Illinois native whose husband is a captain for the New Zealand volleyball team, was in position to stop everything the U.S. threw at her.
Wambach in particular seemed off, unable to get the right touch on crosses inside or her own headers. In the 9th minute, Alex “Baby Horse” Morgan got on top of a ball on a breakaway, galloping into the penalty area, but was tripped up by New Zealand for an early penalty kick. The sure-footed Wambach lined up for the kick, and the U.S. looked poised to take a 1-0 early lead. Despite fooling Bindon on her direction, Wambach banged the ball of the left post, and it was cleared away by New Zealand back into play.
After halftime, spurred by keeping the U.S. off the board, New Zealand picked up the offensive pressure, starting to move the ball into the U.S. side of the field. Hope Solo had been replaced by backup Nicole Barnhart after halftime, and in the 49th minute, a mistake from Kelley O’Hara on a back pass toward Barnhart allowed New Zealand to take advantage. Nineteen year old forward Hannah Wilkinson picked off the pass and sent it over Barnhart into the goal for a 1-0 NZL lead to shock the USA and silence the crowd of over 20,000 at FC Dallas Stadium.
As we saw during the World Cup, despite the U.S. not playing at the top of their game, they found the late spark necessary to win. In the past, it might have been Morgan who came in late to seal the victory. Tonight, Morgan may have sealed her spot in the starting eleven, and benefited from the fire that tonight’s late entries to the match – Amy Rodriguez, Megan Rapinoe and Lori Lindsey – provided.