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USWNT defenders Midge Purce, Alana Cook make the most of international debuts

The defenders both earned their first caps in the final game of the year for the United States, with Purce forcing the final goal of the 6-0 win.

U.S. women's national team Midge Purce controls the ball in front of Costa Rica's Lixy Rodriguez Sunday at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville. (Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The first touch of Midge Purce’s international career did not go as planned. Instead, it went right under her foot.

In the second minute of Purce’s first cap with the United States on Sunday, the moment was a jolt for the defense, forcing Purce to scramble back to recover, and also to relax into her international debut.

“I said, ‘It can’t get worse than that,’” Purce said with a laugh. “After that, it was just fine.”

The final game of the year for the U.S. women’s national team saw the first international caps for both Purce and defender Alana Cook. The young duo played 90 minutes, holding down the right wing of the defense on the way to a 6-0 win, the first shutout of Vlatko Andonovski’s tenure as head coach.

Even against an opponent like Costa Rica, Andonovski saw the risk in pairing two players full of first-game nerves on the same side of the backline.

“When we were putting the lineup together, we were thinking it was going to be a little bit too much to have both of them on the same side, but I was very happy,” Andonovski said. “Both of them did well and both of them played 90 minutes which I was very proud of them, proud of their performance and how they handled challenges.”

Playing as an outside back was a particularly new challenge for Purce, who has played as a striker for most of her career internationally and at the club and college level. On a roster stacked with attacking talent, traditionally offensive players Crystal Dunn and Kelley O’Hara have been transformed into outside backs in the past, and Purce could be added to the list if she continues with the team.

After receiving help from Dunn throughout camp, she tackled the challenge, pressing far up the right flank to stretch the Costa Rican defense and forcing an own goal in the 86th minute. From her central position, Cook was able to facilitate this pressure, sending balls up in transition that broke open the right side of the field.

Despite their youth, veteran defender Becky Sauerbrunn said both players fit in eagerly, compensating for their inexperience by talking constantly throughout the match.

“You just over-communicate every little thing until you get the feel of how she holds the line, how she steps, how she drops,” Sauerbrunn said. “This is the game where you just talk about everything, even if it’s just nonsense or the most obvious thing you’ve ever seen.”

That dedication to communication was a key to both defenders’ comfort during their first cap. Purce said players at different positions welcomed her. Midfielder Allie Long took her aside throughout camp, talking through the tactics of the game plan and offering “realistic and honest” advice. 

And the young duo — who are close friends after years of playing together through the youth development program — looked after each other on and off the pitch.

As Purce approached the reporters her first international post game media mix zone, she shot Cook a panicked look.

“What did you say?” she asked, grabbing at Cook’s arm.

“I told them you suck,” Cook grinned back, giving her teammate a light shove.

For Cook, the first cap served as the next step in a tenuous period of her international career. Cook rose through the youth development system with the United States, but her father is English, opening up the possibility for her to represent the English national team.

After foregoing the NWSL to play for Paris Saint-German in France, Cook was called in by England coach Phil Neville for a camp in September. Cook’s appearance on Sunday won’t cap tie the defender to the United States just yet.

“I’m just taking everything day by day,” Cook said. “I don’t want to look too far into the future, I’m still young in my career. I’m just trying to learn and process everything and take in everything I can, be open to the criticism and feedback I’m getting.”

For the Americans, the final moment of a historic year focused on the future. In the team’s final locker room huddle of 2019, captain Carli Lloyd presented Purce and Cook each with a bright yellow soccer ball signed by the entire team, a traditional memento for a first cap. (Lloyd added Purce should get a second ball for her forced own-goal, but Purce quickly waved her off, saying they should save it for a real goal.)

As they left the stadium, Purce and Cook kept those balls tucked tight to their chest.

“It’s surreal,” Purce said. “The locker room is full of legends. I’ve been working a long time to get here behind closed doors and I’m still not where I want to be as a soccer player, but this was a huge first step for me. I hope it’s in the right direction.”

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