GRENOBLE, France – The scoreline said Australia beat Jamaica 4-1 and the headlines worldwide lauded Sam Kerr for scoring all of the Matildas’ goals.
But beneath the surface, much of the night was much less flattering for the victors, and they knew it.
“I thought the first half, we were OK, we were decent, we controlled the game and we looked quite comfortable – but at the same time, we just needed to move the ball a little bit quicker,” Australia coach Ante Milicic said. “In the second half, they made a change, and we couldn’t deal with them in transition. … At 2-1, I think we got a little bit nervous.”
The goal that made it 2-1 came just four minutes into the second half, after Kerr put Australia in front with two impressive headers. And it came from the player who was sparked the that change, former Washington Spirit forward Havana Solaun. She delivered Jamaica’s first Women’s World Cup goal and it electrified the near-sellout crowd of 17,402 at the Stade des Alpes.
More noise soon followed, and not just from the many Jamaican fans in attendance. Solaun, Khadija Shaw and Mireya Grey repeatedly pierced Australia’s back line as this tournament’s favorite underdogs put a world power on the ropes for 20 enthralling minutes.
Then Australia made one big foray down the field, and Jamaica made one big defensive error. Hayley Raso surged down the right flank, then split two Jamaican defenders with a cutback that would make Portland Thorns teammate Tobin Heath proud. Raso swung a pass across the six-yard box that Sashana Campbell couldn’t control, and the ball fell to Kerr’s feet on the doorstep for an easy finish.
In an instant, the air went out of half the stadium.
As Australia now prepares to face Norway in the round of 16 on Saturday in Nice, the question lingers: can the Matildas hit the top gear that the world is waiting to see?
“We’re well aware that we need to improve and get better if we want to match our ambition of going deep in this tournament,” Milicic said.
The answer might be found in his team’s final tally against Jamaica, as unsightly as it was. Jamaican goalkeeper Nicole McClure misplayed the ball after a heavy touch collecting a back pass, and Kerr raced after the loose ball with her trademark relentlessness. The two players collided and hit the deck as Kerr delivered the finish.
Kerr’s refusal to take her foot off the gas pedal until the final whistle was a statement of intent, and it ended up mattering a lot. In the minutes between when Marta scored for Brazil against Italy and Kerr scored her fourth against Jamaica, Australia fell to third place in the group standings.
Which is to say, for those keeping track, that Australia needed to run up the score. Kerr has the same moxie as her American counterparts on the Chicago Red Stars and across the NWSL, and on Tuesday her country needed it. She delivered.
“At the time, I didn’t know how important it is, but we knew every goal would count – and I actually wanted more after that, being my selfish self,” Kerr said. “We’re literally a never say die team. Every goal matters to us, and we wanted more.”
Quite a few Australian players think the same way. It’s part of what has fueled the nation’s rise up the women’s soccer ranks, and fueled this sport’s growth in a nation that’s as sports-crazed as they come.
“We just realize that this is really it for us,” said goalkeeper Lydia Williams, who plays for the NWSL’s Reign FC and was teammates with Solaun in Seattle in 2015 and 2016. “This is the team, everything is falling into place, and we just want to go out there and do our country proud and each other proud. An Australian team will never put their head down and give up.”
They need that mentality now more than ever.