Julie Ertz - US women's national team (USWNT) - vs Japan

The US women’s national team clinched first place in the 2020 SheBelieves Cup with a flourish on Wednesday night, defeating Japan 3-1 at FC Dallas’ Toyota Stadium and in the process extending their ongoing unbeaten streak to 31 matches.

Here’s a few thoughts from the tournament finale.

Remember 2011?

The United States only needed a draw here to win SheBelieves, but that’s just not how this team thinks or works these days. They bolted out of the games with enough ferocity to blow the doors off a talented and extremely technical Japan side, pressing ruthlessly and putting the game out of reach before half an hour had elapsed.

Megan Rapinoe got things started with a free-kick masterclass over the Japanese wall and into the top left corner of the net barely six minutes in, and Christen Press capped a dominant opening phase for the Americans with a gorgeously delicate chip from just outside the 18-yard box after a costly distribution error by Nadeshiko goalkeeper Ayaka Yamashita.

Japan recovered their equilibrium after halftime and cut the deficit in half with a well-crafted strike from Mana Iwabuchi. As if to underline the scale and diversity of their power, however, the USWNT restored the two-goal margin via Lindsey Horan’s thumping corner-kick header.

The Nadeshiko knocked off the USWNT in the 2011 Women’s World Cup final, one of the great upsets in women’s international soccer history, and the US seem to have punished them for it ever since, going 7-1-4 against Japan and outscoring them 30-16 in their subsequent meetings. Iwabuchi & Co. have to produce a nearly perfect version of their tiki-taka style to hang with the relentless, athletic Americans and this was no such performance.

The USWNT have a point to prove

It’s impossible to discuss this game – or the current state of the USWNT at large – without noting the players’ pay-equity conflict with the U.S. Soccer Federation, which took another dramatic turn with the release of new legal filings this week.

If the back-to-back reigning world champs had any semblance of complacency creeping in after all they’ve achieved, that saga has obliterated any of it, making for a fiercely driven squad, match after match. As the controversy rages all around them, they’re letting their quality speak for itself.

The players collectively made a point in Wednesday’s pregame warmups, obscuring the crest but leaving their four world championship stars still visible thanks to the nature of the embroidery.

The imposing, irreplaceable Ertz

Press has been the USWNT’s most dangerous attacker by a hefty margin this year, racking up an impressive array of head-turning goals and assists. As we’ve discussed here previously, she’s in the best form of her career and it seems to be liberating teammates like Rapinoe and Tobin Heath to be themselves without undue pressure to produce.

It’s holding midfielder Julie Ertz (pictured at top) who remains the team’s most important player, though. She’s such an imposing and inspirational presence in front of the back four, shielding her defense and setting the tempo with equal aplomb, a cop on the beat who sets the standard for the entire group much like Jermaine Jones once did for the US men’s side.

For all the riches at coach Vlatko Andonovski’s disposal – and one suspects that with their current run of form, the USWNT could’ve won this tournament with a second-choice XI – no one brings quite the same blend of awareness, focus and physicality as Ertz.