Goals hard to come by as Team USA and Canada kick off June football friendlies

HOUSTON, TX - JUNE 10: Samantha Mewis #3 of the United States reacts after scoring a goal against Portugal during the second half of the 2021 WNT Summer Series friendly at BBVA Stadium on June 10, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - JUNE 10: Samantha Mewis #3 of the United States reacts after scoring a goal against Portugal during the second half of the 2021 WNT Summer Series friendly at BBVA Stadium on June 10, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images)

World champions USA and their eighth-ranked neighbors Canada only managed one goal between them against moderate – though motivated – opposition in the first of a flurry of pre-Tokyo 2020 (in 2021) Olympic friendly contests.

Gold medal-favourites the United States left it late to get the better of a well-prepared Portugal 1-0 in Houston on Thursday night (10 June) while twice bronze medal-winners Canada were held goalless (0-0) in a tangle against the Czechs on Friday (11 June).

Team USA’s first of three Olympic preparation games in an action-packed week deep in the heart of Texas (meant to mimic the rhythm – and intensity – of the Tokyo Women’s Football schedule) didn’t leave fans drowning in optimism.

The win against Portugal, ranked 29th in the world and never having qualified for an Olympics or World Cup, was a predictable outcome considering the gulf in class. But the all-conquering four-time-World Cup winning Americans’ inability to break down a humble, though highly motivated, opponent for most of the match will have surprised many. As will the slim 1-0 scoreline.

Horan impresses on Ertz duty

Defensive midfielder Julie Ertz has been, for a fair few years now, one of the first names down on a USA squad list. But she suffered a knee injury (MCL) in mid-May playing with her NWSL club side Chicago Red Stars, and her tight race to full fitness has left American coach Vlatko Andonovski scrambling for solutions in the No. 6 role. Luckily for him, he has an abundance of world-class players to repurpose in case Ertz loses her fitness battle ahead of the Tokyo Games.

Lindsey Horan, who returned from four years in France with PSG in 2016 to become a dominant force with the Portland Thorns, looks like a ready-made replacement. Far from the swashbuckling (and deadly-on-set-pieces) Ertz in personality and approach, Horan’s incisive passing and clever reading of the game creates chances for the USA to build from deep.

HOUSTON, TX - JUNE 10: Megan Rapinoe #15 of the United States kicks a corner during the first half of the 2021 WNT Summer Series friendly against Portugal at BBVA Stadium on June 10, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - JUNE 10: Megan Rapinoe #15 of the United States kicks a corner during the first half of the 2021 WNT Summer Series friendly against Portugal at BBVA Stadium on June 10, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images)
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“A soccer player is a soccer player as far as I’m concerned,” Horan, who started her football life as a striker, recently told Tokyo 2020. “I feel like I see the game really well and I can play to what’s needed of me. Versatility is huge and we have so many players who can play out of position, but I always wanted to be the player who can do what’s needed.”

READ MORE | Horan Happy with the Ball at her Feet

Mewis produces for US on rare toothless night

Up front near the goal, in those positions Horan knows well, the USA left much to be desired against the Portuguese. Despite keeping a 40-game winning streak alive, the Americans were unable to break down their deep-lying opponents for most of a contest that was considered by many as a likely walkover.

Thankfully for the Americans, Sam Mewis did what Sam Mewis does.

The aptly dubbed ‘Tower of Power,’ who returned to NWSL side North Carolina Courage from Manchester City earlier this year, rose to the occasion in the 76th minute. She nodded home inside the six-yard box just when it seemed the United States was out of ideas.

“I definitely think we have higher expectations. I personally didn’t really get enough of my shots on target,” Mewis told reporters after the game. “I think all of us know that we can be a little bit more clinical in and around the box...and executing those shots or chances on goal.”

Christen Press impressed best among the USA’s cast of under-performing attackers. And she provided the inch-perfect assist on the night (her 40th for the team). The 32-year-old’s service and willingness to work at poking holes in the Portuguese defense will have done her hopes of making the final 18-player squad for Japan no harm. Press' chances of making the team may also be boosted by the fact that Tobin Heath – on the bench but still recovering from an ankle injury suffered in January – is a doubt to be fit for Tokyo.

Press was unlucky not to get on the scoresheet when her right-footed snapshot in the 34th minute was pushed aside by Portugal’s impressive goalkeeper Ines Pereira, who made nine saves in the game.

HOUSTON, TX - JUNE 10: Lindsey Horan #9 of the United States gets tripped up by Francisca Nazareth #7 of Portugal during the 2021 WNT Summer Series friendly at BBVA Stadium on June 10, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - JUNE 10: Lindsey Horan #9 of the United States gets tripped up by Francisca Nazareth #7 of Portugal during the 2021 WNT Summer Series friendly at BBVA Stadium on June 10, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images)
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For Alex Morgan, who missed a golden chance in the 55th minute, and veteran stalwart Megan Rapinoe (35), the hot night in Houston was more a slog than a success. Substitute Carli Lloyd, who’ll turn 39 before the Olympics start, came off the bench late and thought she'd scored a message-sending goal to her coach only for the strike to be chalked off for offside.

But for those who lacked a certain spark, there will be ample opportunity to prove their worth to Andonovski who is heading into his first major international competition as head coach since taking over for the iconic Jill Ellis.

The Americans, undefeated in 54 games on home soil, play two more friendlies (against Jamaica and Nigeria) in the next four days and two more games, in early July against Mexico, before heading off for Tokyo as rampaging favourites in a hunt for their fifth Olympic gold medal.

Canada held by Czechs

The Canadians – who finished with bronze at the last two editions of the Olympic Games – could only manage a goalless draw with the Czech Republic. The Czechs are ranked only two places above the Portuguese (in 27th) in the FIFA World Ranking but they put up a grand resistance against the fancied Canadians in Cartagena, Spain.

The game saw a return to national-team duty for Christine Sinclair, Canada’s iconic 37-year-old striker who’s scored more goals (187) than any man or woman in international football. It also saw young Bianca St. George (23) make her senior national team debut as coach Bev Priestman aims to finalise her 18-player squad for Tokyo in the coming weeks.

PSG-based phenom Jordyn Huitema (20) came off the bench at the start of the second half but she was unable to spark Team Canada into breaching the Czech net.

“The Olympics is absolutely massive in Canada,” said England-born Priestman in a recent interview with Tokyo 2020. “But the next step has to be to be more brave and take that next step forward.”

The United States face fellow CONCACAF side Jamaica on Sunday in Houston while Canada remain in Spain to play Brazil on Monday.