The US women's national team put their game faces on before jetting to Brazil, methodically dismantling Costa Rica 4-0 at Sporting KC's Children's Mercy Park on Friday night in their final friendly before their Olympic tournament kicks off vs. New Zealand on August 3.
Costa Rica are a promising, fast-improving program, led by the talented Raquel Rodriguez – 2015's winner of the Hermann Trophy, awarded to NCAA soccer's best player – who was miscast in an advanced striking role on this occasion. They've yet to beat or tie the US in 14 tries, so this one was always all about the USWNT and their search for full bore before the Olympics.
With that in mind, here are a few thoughts after a clinical evening in Kansas.
Even without Rapinoe, the wings are vicious
This will be the first Olympic adventure for more than half of coach Jill Ellis' 18-player roster, and the most dramatically overhauled area of the squad, the flanks, might be the scariest for opponents. Crystal Dunn opened Friday's scoring with a tap-in of Meghan Klingenberg's low far-post cross, then 18-year-old Mallory Pugh continued her meteoric ascent with a exuberant solo run-and-finish dripping in a level of swagger rarely seen from someone her age at international level.
It's not just that Dunn and Pugh – and often fullbacks Klingenberg and/or Kelley O'Hara on the overlap too – are blazing fast, elsusive and direct. They are also relentless, and smart about their movement and timing. It's a gaudy sign of Ellis' wealth of options that she could bring the magical feet of Tobin Heath off the bench in relief. Having on-the-mend veteran star Megan Rapinoe in the mix would make it a true "Murderers' Row," though that part isn't clear just yet (more on that later).
Lloyd looks ready to rock
Ellis and the USWNT have achieved the impressive feat of getting younger, faster and more versatile since their 2015 Women's World Cup triumph. But they've carried a couple of question marks at the heart of the lineup, starting with the fitness and sharpness of Carli Lloyd, the reigning FIFA Player of the Year and hat-trick hero of that World Cup final.
The New Jersey native sprained her knee during her club side Houston Dash's match at Orlando Pride on April 23. Though less severe than originally feared, the injury sidelined her for months and limited her recent match action to 45 minutes off the bench vs. South Africa on July 9. Would Lloyd be at full fitness in time for Brazil? Ellis didn't seem worried earlier this month, and perhaps Friday proved why.
Lloyd started and logged the full 90 in KC, looking her usual commanding self in a free playmaking role and notching the USWNT's third goal, a well-placed glancing header off Becky Sauerbrunn's set-piece delivery. Afterwards, she emphasized a mantra in an interview with ESPN's SportsCenter: "Bring it on."
The other injury concern has been Rapinoe, who tore her ACL on the USWNT's star-crossed Hawai'i trip in December and has been racing the clock to be fully fit for the Olympics.
The knee seems to be fully healed. But as is common with such injuries, she's picked up some muscular problems in neighboring areas of her leg and as a result did not dress for Friday night's contest – as was the case for the South Africa match.
Megan Rapinoe on her calf injury: “It’s just not ready yet. It just needs a few more days.”— John D. Halloran (@JohnDHalloran) July 22, 2016
Jill Ellis: “We’re being uber-conservative.”
“Pinoe” is a game-changing talent when healthy, as Ellis emphasized when explaining her comfort in handing the recuperating winger one of her precious 18 Olympic roster slots. But the lack of any match minutes before the flight to Rio is a red flag. Veteran flank specialist Heather O'Reilly is one of four squad alternates in the USWNT's traveling party and the likely replacement should something go wrong for Rapinoe in the final countdown to the Olympic opener vs. New Zealand.
So many styles
As we documented in detail here on MLSsoccer.com, Ellis was dogged by tactical troubles in the run-up to last summer's World Cup and even in the group stages of that tournament. She seemed too content to let her team's superior depth and physicality grind down opponents, with a long-running reliance on since-retired legend Abby Wambach.
Cerebral center mid Morgan Brian sparked a knockout-round renaissance in Canada, however, and confident domination of February's CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament in Texas reflected the USWNT's continued evolution. Now, even with Brian limited by hamstring troubles, the center remains sturdy as Lindsey Horan and Allie Long have grown comfortable with the deep-lying and box-to-box roles behind Lloyd.
The USWNT can press, they can go direct and stretch the field, they can pick apart defenses with combination play. They're still menacing on set pieces and they flood into the box when the opposing defense gets turned. The USWNT are now 14-0-1 in 2016, with 52 goals scored and four (yes, four) allowed. Earlier this month, Ellis suggested that ample upside remains.
“At times I've seen us play through lines, [but] we want to be a balance,” she explained. “If we can get in behind with one pass, we want to do that, because it's on … But then we also need to be able to problem-solve, and I think we can do that now, and that's where I think we've gotten better, in terms of just being able to play off of each other, have more versatility.
“We talk about variety of ways to get into the goal zone. We don't even talk about crossing any more. It's a final pass cutback, it's an early service in behind. We've taken it to another level in terms of even our language for the players, because they can do it. And that's what's really exciting about this group: They're a highly technical group that want to continue to grow.”