That's more like it.
The US women's national team weren't perfect against China on Friday night in Ottawa – in fact I think they're still well short of their lofty ceiling. But a combination of lineup and mentality changes paid big dividends: Not just a place in the Women's World Cup semifinals, but their best display in quite some time.
The USWNT were quicker, hungrier and more aggressive in this one, most noticeably in terms of a real commitment to high pressure that pushed China back onto their heels and enabled the US – FINALLY! – to impose themselves on the flow of a match. And the back four remains utterly nails.
It didn't fully manifest itself on the scoreboard, but it was clear to see in every other regard. And that presents coach Jill Ellis with some daunting questions to mull en route to Montreal, where Germany – even after their draining, 120 minutes-plus-PKs grudge match win over France – will be a far tougher out on every level.
My three thoughts:
1) Amy Rodriguez mashed the turbo button
This US team enters most matches as the favorite, often overwhelmingly so. That usually means their opponents sit deep and cede the initiative – and over time this can make you complacent and untidy. There were symptoms of this in the group stage, but tonight Rodriguez made sure it didn't happen.
Making her first start of the tournament, “A-Rod” was a whirling dervish up top, hounding China's defenders, scampering after loose balls and generally making herself a nuisance.
This energy and aggression filtered into the rest of the side, from her strike partner Alex Morgan on down, and left the Chinese suffocated for long periods – forced to mind every single touch with care, struggling to build out of the back, unable to catch their breath. Even their own blood couldn't distract the US hounds from their prey:
Rodriguez's runs sometimes lack savvy and on Friday her scoring touch abandoned her, most embarrassingly on a glaring miss that should've put the USWNT ahead just two minutes in. But her work rate transformed the team in a way that just isn't happening when Abby Wambach – who's a bigger target and a better finisher, but simply can't chew up ground like A-Rod anymore – is on the field.
2) Morgan Brian set the tempo
There's something deliciously ironic about the fact that on a team where seniority is so plentiful, and so valued, it was a 22-year-old who came in and solved the central midfield problem.
Brian is the team's youngest player, and she's still got a year or so's worth of credit hours left to do before the University of Virginia hands her a diploma. But she might just have the highest soccer IQ on this team, and it showed against China.
Handed the holding mid role that has been such a shared struggle for Carli Lloyd and the suspended Lauren Holiday, Brian – though herself a classic No. 10 at heart – locked down the area in front of the back four. She was tidy and sensible with her passing, directed traffic like a seasoned vet and gave Lloyd a stable platform from which to raid forward, as she did on the game-winning goal.
Carli Lloyd is named the player of the match. Says she had more freedom to play. First game #USA put a team on their back heels in this WWC.— Caitlin Murray (@caitlinmurr) June 27, 2015
Brian, as I tried to explain in a piece for another outlet this week, is a product of the United States' increasingly sophisticated soccer culture. She thinks more quickly than she runs, she sees things other players don't and she's always looking to combine with teammates and build a rhythm (some might think of her as a more polished Harry Shipp, if Shipp was somehow able to adapt to a holding mid role on the fly as a rookie).
Last year Jurgen Klinsmann belatedly discovered that Kyle Beckerman's unflashy patrolling freed up his US men's national teammates to go do more spectacular things further up the field. Now Ellis may have discovered the midfielder who can unlock the same freedoms for Lloyd, Tobin Heath and the like.
3) Decisions, decisions
Ellis has been fairly obvious with her preference for veteran experience since she took over the USWNT job on a permanent basis. This would seem to indicate that Holiday and Rapinoe, and maybe Wambach too, will have their spots waiting for them in the semifinals.
But from where I'm standing, the increased fluidity shown vs. China looks too precious to risk fumbling away with a regression to the prior status quo. Brian's cerebral approach won the engine room on this occasion, and in the process gave Ellis a real headache.
The all-action Rapinoe is one of the more unique players on the roster, and will probably step straight back into the XI on Tuesday. Holiday is a hell of a player who simply hasn't adapted to the challenge of curtailing her attacking instincts in a No. 6 role as well as Brian did on Friday.
It's understandable if Ellis feels compelled to get Holiday's world-class skillset back on the field, and she'll surely hesitate to bench Lloyd after her two goals in the last two games. But right now a wide midfield tasking for Holiday – or even a runout as a withdrawn striker – would be less disruptive to the team's shape and coherence than a return to the anchor role.
Against Nigeria, Jill Ellis went to the prevent. Tonight, she goes for the jugular.— Jonathan Tannenwald (@thegoalkeeper) June 27, 2015
The same goes for Wambach. The Rodriguez-Morgan pairing gave us a glimpse of a far more dynamic, menacing strike force than the ones spearheaded by Wambach of late. Against the efficient Germans, will Ellis seek to keep that turbo button pressed, or is she going to wheel the catapults and siege engines back out?