SANTA CLARA, Calif. — With the Women’s World Cup less than a month away, the United States women’s national team is looking to build momentum and confidence ahead of its title defense. A 3-0 win over South Africa in its first of three tuneup games provided a step in the right direction.
Samantha Mewis accounted for two goals on a sun-drenched afternoon in front of an announced 22,788 at Levi’s Stadium. Her first-half goal was a sublime individual effort, staking the USWNT to a lead it would not surrender, while goal number two iced the game. It was Mewis’ first two-goal game for the national team since Oct. 27, 2017.
“Moving forward, we know everything we do is building towards something bigger,” Mewis said. “I’m really excited to contribute whatever I can in the service of the team.”
Carli Lloyd, who received the biggest cheers of the afternoon on her introduction as a second-half substitute, scored in stoppage time to complete the scoring for the USA. It was Lloyd’s 108th national team goal in her 272nd appearance.
“Just doing my thing,” Lloyd said. “Coming on and trying to make a difference.”
South Africa will also head to France for the World Cup, but it is not considered a serious threat to challenge the trophy contenders. Its emphasis on defense stymied the U.S. for long stretches of the game, but it also meant the African Confederation Championship runners-up saw very little of the ball in the attacking half.
“The World Cup games don’t always start off perfectly,” U.S. head coach Jill Ellis said. “Sometimes it’s the ability to get better in a game and grow in a game. We just have to be consistent in what we do. Sometimes you play teams that present slightly different things, and it does take adjustments, but the quality got better. We got so many takeaways from this game. It’s fantastic.”
The win was well taken by coaches and players, but everyone acknowledged that their eyes are squarely on the prize: the World Cup trophy they will battle for in France.
“We’re all anxious to get over there,” Lloyd said. “There’s some things we can take away and learn. This was a good opponent to play that had man-marking capabilities, but we have to continue to dig deep and get better, individually and collectively.”
The game started quietly for the USWNT, as South Africa played deep in its own half from the opening whistle. Christen Press engineered the first U.S. scoring opportunity in the 24th minute, sprinting free on the left side and sending a low cross into the area, but her pass was behind Alex Morgan and cleared easily by the defense.
Press continued to dictate play as provider on two more occasions, feeding Julie Ertz in the 31st minute only to have her shot deflected for a corner kick. Two minutes later, another missed chance to connect with Morgan gave South Africa a reprieve, but it wouldn’t last for long.
Mewis took matters into her own hands in the 37th minute, collecting the ball centrally on a pass from Rose Lavelle and then dancing past her marker to get a clean look from the top of the area. She made no mistake with her shot, scoring her 10th international goal with a confident strike past goalkeeper Dlamini Andile.
“I just wanted to get one on frame, and I tried my best,” Mewis said. “Rose gave me a great pass.”
The goal woke up the sun-baked Levi’s Stadium crowd, and the USWNT seized on the opportunity to pressure South Africa on every possession. Tobin Heath nearly doubled the lead in the 45th minute when she blasted a ball from a tight angle, but Andile turned it aside for another corner kick.
The second half was more of the same for the USWNT. Ellis introduced three substitutes in an effort to keep the South Africans on their back heels. Megan Rapinoe spelled Heath in the biggest change, and her influence was felt from the restart. The U.S. had multiple chances to score goal No. 2.
But South Africa held strong, never showing any attacking verve, but holding steady enough on the back line to keep the score 1-0. Another key substitution came in the 60th minute, when Morgan made way for Lloyd. The two legends received the loudest ovation of the day as they met at the center line, Morgan passing the captain’s armband to Lloyd before she stepped onto the field.
Mewis came close to a second goal when she fired a shot through traffic in the 72nd minute that substitute goalkeeper Kaylin Swart was fortunate to block. Not to be denied any further, she finally made it 2-0 minutes later when a cross from Rapinoe was palmed away by Swart before deflecting off Mewis and into the back of the net. It wasn’t as pretty as her first, but it counted the same nonetheless.
“It was a dangerous ball that Pinoe played in, and I give her full credit,” Mewis said. “We talk about getting it in behind the back line and in front of the goalkeeper, and if anyone can make a run on it, it’s super dangerous. It was mostly Pinoe, and I was in the right place.”
The game drifted into stoppage time with Rapinoe narrowly missing the target on a free kick from outside the box. Lloyd didn’t miss her chance, however, and she stabbed the ball home from close range to complete the USWNT scoring for the day.
“Carli lives for those moments,” Ellis said. “There’s a trust, there’s a confidence, there’s an intensity about her that today was a perfect situation, a perfect reflection of what she can do and the damage she can do when she comes into the game.”
The 3-0 win was not as close as the score indicates, as the U.S. took 19 shots to South Africa’s 5. Mewis was named the Women of the Match for her two-goal performance, but her effect on the game went beyond her contributions to the scoreline.
“She’s a dynamic player that can impact a game,” Ellis said, “and when you go to a World Cup, you need players that can score goals from distance, that can get in the box, that can be playmakers, and there’s a lot of versatility with Sam.”
There were no injuries in the game, but the U.S. had a scare early in the first half when Julie Ertz suffered an inadvertent strike to the face. She came off the field to have a split lip attended before continuing to play with a makeshift gauze bandage. At intermission, the medical staff fixed her up, and Ertz played the full 90 minutes, having the lip stitched up after the game.
“There’s no one quite like Julie, playing with gauze pads hanging out of her mouth for most of the first half,” Ellis shared. “I can’t speak enough about her, just to deal with everything and be willing to do anything.”
The U.S. will continue its Send-Off Series of tuneup games on Thursday when it faces New Zealand in St. Louis and against Mexico on May 26 at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. The USWNT begins World Cup group play in France June 11 when it takes on Thailand.