The US women’s national team does something they traditionally don’t do often: They go overseas to play a few friendly matches against a tough opponent on hostile turf. In this case, it’s Australia, a team that is steadily on the rise thanks to the talent of players like Samantha Kerr, Caitlin Foord and Ellie Carpenter.
Fresh after a disappointing Summer Olympics, these games – on Friday at 11pm. ET and then Tuesday at 4:05 p.m. ET (Stream the second game LIVE on ESPN) won’t be easy for the USWNT, but that is the whole point. Americans want these games to be tough in Australia – and players probably won’t admit that, if they lose one or both games, all the better. Because losing paves the way to winning, as we’ve seen time and time again at the USWNT.
Keep this in mind: when head coach Vlatko Andonovski arrived for the Tokyo Olympics earlier this year, he had never lost a game since he took office with the USWNT, and the team was 44 games unbeaten when it arrived in Japan. Of course, that didn’t work out so well.
In retrospect, is it any wonder that the US players looked exhausted in their opening game of the Olympics than Swedes beat her up on a masterful show? U.S. players hadn’t seen the sting of defeat in a long time, and the USWNT’s pre-Olympics farewell games were held on U.S. soil in front of packed home crowds – something many teams at the Olympics couldn’t enjoy the pandemic.
These games in Australia, which are open to fans, are the USWNT’s first away games since the World Cup in France more than two years ago, which already has a sizeable American contingent traveling to see the games. The last time the USWNT played an away game against a hostile crowd outside of a major tournament was in Europe in January 2019, including a 3-1 loss to France.
Lindsay Horan of course remembers this trip to France well. When asked by ESPN what is different when playing in front of away fans, they can’t help but mention this loss. “It’s different – you go into the game and it’s harder ever to play in an away stadium,” said Horan. “I think the last time I remember was in France before the World Cup and it’s difficult when they have a twelfth man.”
Former U.S. coach Jill Ellis has directly credited the USWNT for overcoming a slow start in Canada and winning the 2015 World Cup. The Americans went to Brazil in December 2014 and lost, and then to France in February 2015 and lost again. “I wanted them to fight,” Ellis said about her trip to Brazil in an exclusive interview. “It was going to be a challenge. It was hot, tough and tough and we lost the game. From there I brought them to France and we had problems, we lost.”
“We learned more about ourselves in these difficulties,” she added. “I will say that without these fights and losses we will not win the World Cup.”
Andonovski could only do so much ahead of the Tokyo Olympics due to the COVID-19 pandemic – he was only in office a few months before sports and travel practically ceased. But now he’s hoping to broaden the USWNT’s horizons, especially as he’s bringing more young people with him. His roster in Australia includes 12 players with 10 caps or fewer, including five players with no caps.
“It is important that we travel outside of the country and we are facing a bit of adversity and an environment where the opponents have that support,” said Andonovski. “It’s important not just to experience it, but to be in a place or country that is hosting the next big event, the 2023 World Cup. Hopefully we can do it more in the future.” often than in the past 18 months or so. It’s important, especially for players who have never seen anything like it. “
While losing is best for the USWNT in the long run, fans never took it very well. In 2017, when the USWNT suffered losses at home for the first time in 17 years, some fans responded by calling for Ellis to be fired, using the hashtag #FireJillEllis in case it wasn’t clear enough. Regardless of the fact that Ellis had won a World Cup for the US only two years earlier, USWNT fans are used to winning, especially at home.
“Everyone is used to winning everything and I think if we want to win the World Cup, things like that have to happen,” Allie Long told me at the time. “I love that the fans are mad. It shows so much passion.”
Her words ended up sounding true, of course. The USWNT, including Long, stormed France in 2019, becoming the first team to ever win consecutive women’s world championships. Ellis had repeated the same formula she had attributed to winning the World Cup four years earlier: five months before the 2019 World Cup, the USWNT took the USWNT to Europe for friendly matches and they lost – a positive omen, it turned out, and it’s easy to see why the losses help.
If losing has to be an option for a road trip to be worth it, Australia is as good an opponent as anyone. The Matildas, as they are known, are already on the rise as new talent has emerged under the leadership of Samantha Kerr, who has been at times considered the best striker in the world in recent years. She has an up-and-coming talent factory, which Australian coach Tony Gustavsson is transforming from a direct counter team into a possession-based, high-pressure collective. It is still comes togetherbut there are signs of progress.
USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski explains the selection of strikers like Midge Purce, Ashley Hatch and Sophia Smith for the friendlies in Australia.
While football is a cruel game where the better team can still lose, nothing can force a re-evaluation or spark a fire among a team like defeat. But just playing in a different environment than the party atmosphere of the US home games will do a US team that looked way too complacent after the Olympics in Japan.
This trip to Australia is also noteworthy in that it is the USWNT’s first in 21 years. They visited Australia in 2000 on three separate trips including one that was part of. was a decisive boycott of US football, and the last one for the Sydney Olympics. There is no doubt that the 2023 Women’s World Cup, which will be hosted in Australia and New Zealand, is the reason for the trip, but leaving the US could be the most important factor right now. As of early 2016, only 10 of the USWNT’s 84 non-World Cup and non-Olympic games have been played outside of the United States. The rest was played at home.
Playing abroad is of course not the be-all and end-all. In the past, the United States used to travel annually to an invitation tournament called the Algarve Cup in Portugal, but it was an environment that offered little atmosphere and often underpowered opponents. The US Football Association decided to start a separate tournament called The SheBelieves Cup every year at the same time. In contrast to the Algarve Cup, the games are played in three different cities in a competitive format that is identical to the World Cup.
The SheBelieves Cup has become a more valuable test run for reality, even if the Games are being played in the United States. But there’s no repeat of a trip Down Under in front of Australian fans seeking revenge after the USWNT defeated the Matildas in the bronze medal game in the Tokyo Olympics.
The Australian federation claims to have sold more than 35,000 tickets for Tuesday’s game in Sydney, which would set a new record as the largest crowd at the Matildas in Australia. Horan knows that means a lot of Aussies are fighting the Americans – but they love that, she said. “I think it’s that cool feeling when you are able to score on them or do something well and silence their fans,” she said with a grin.
But if the Matildas perform well, that wouldn’t be so bad in the long run.