Leroux, Brian shine in U.S. win
FRISCO, Texas -- In front of the biggest crowd to see the squad play in this country in more than a decade, Sydney Leroux made sure she and the rest of the United States women's national team opened 2014 with a win against its neighbor to the north.
And, in her first start for the national team, just weeks after she received the Hermann Trophy as college soccer's best player, Morgan Brian contributed 90 minutes of solid play that helped give the Americans a head start on 2015 and the World Cup those same neighbors will host.
The first made it a successful night. The second explains why this team has so many of them.
In what both coaches billed as -- and what looked throughout like -- a true derby rivalry, complete with 16 fouls and three yellow cards by the visitors, the United States came away with a 1-0 win against Canada on the strength of Leroux's 78th-minute goal that was created by tremendous buildup play from Becky Sauerbrunn and Christen Press.
"If I sit back and assess our performance now, I was really very satisfied with it," U.S. coach Tom Sermanni said of the team's first game in nearly three months.
After a tentative opening 10 minutes in which Canada had more of the ball and was more aggressive, the United States found its footing and applied steady pressure. The first quality chance came in the 13th minute, but Leroux was unable to direct the ball around charging Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod after Megan Rapinoe cut in from the left wing and played in her teammate with a subtle slip pass. That was the best chance, but it was far from the only time McLeod was made to work. Crosses kept sailing in from Rapinoe, Ali Krieger and Heather O'Reilly throughout the first half, but Canada was resilient and composed enough in the final third to parry away the most dangerous balls.
It was, in fact, the Canadians who came closest to scoring before halftime, when Diana Matheson slid a shot wide of the far post from 12 yards after tremendous combination play from Christine Sinclair and Josee Belanger set her up.
It wasn't until Sauerbrunn charged forward with a little more than 11 minutes remaining, combined with Press on a give-and-go inside the 18-yard box and chipped a ball across the box to an open Leroux that a goal finally came.
Unlike the extra-time exclamation point Leroux scored a year ago in Toronto, there was no controversy when she celebrated this goal, just a lot of cheers and some sighs of relief from a partisan crowd of 20,862, the largest to see the United States women play in this country since a game in the nearby Cotton Bowl in 2003 (although not as big as the crowd for that game in Toronto). Relief because, as competitive as the series between North American neighbors has been in recent years, the United States had gone nearly 13 years since it last failed to score in a game against Canada, a 3-0 defeat in the Algarve Cup in 2001 that also marked Canada's last win in the rivalry.
"She's great to watch, and a good kid," Canada coach John Herdman said of Leroux, who was born in British Columbia. "She's got great passion on the pitch, and I think she loves playing for the U.S., and good on her."
It speaks to how much depth is available to the United States that it could plug Leroux in for injured Alex Morgan and not miss a beat (just as it subbed in Press for Abby Wambach shortly before the former played her part in the goal). So, too, did perhaps the performance of the night from Brian.
In her first start for the national team, essentially filling in for Carli Lloyd after the latter picked up a red card in the final game of 2013, Brian was thrown in the deep end of the rivalry. Late in the first half, she was welcomed to the series by a late challenge from Kadeisha Buchanan that earned the Canadian defender a yellow and left Brian sprawling. She got back up, and, by the time the United States had a lead to protect, Sermanni was unwilling to take her off the field and risk disrupting what was working for his team.
"I didn't think she would go 90 [minutes]," Sermanni said. "She did extremely well to go 90, and I think she showed unbelievable class and quality for most of the game tonight."
For Sermanni, the first year on the job was in large part about assessing the talent he had at his disposal. That included players such as Leroux and Press, who had been part of the program before his arrival but had received little chance to make an impression over 90 minutes with any regularity. It also included players who weren't part of the national program. Among the latter group was Brian, whom Sermanni admitted he didn't know anything about a year ago at this time. He brought her into a camp midway through the year on the recommendation of Steve Swanson, her college coach at Virginia and the coach of the Under-20 national team with which she won a World Cup in 2012.
It doesn't look as if Brian will be leaving any decade soon.
"As soon as she walked into a national team camp, she looked like she belonged there," Sermanni said. "You see her tonight out there, and she just looked like she walked on the field like a seasoned international player."
Hers wasn't a role destined to fill a highlight reel, but, if not flawless, she was as good as anyone else on the field as she sat behind the attackers, spread the ball around and did substantial defensive grunt work. On a few occasions, as when she nearly pulled off a juggling trick to beat a Canadian defender on the end line, she even seized the opportunity to show off the skills that create so many highlights as a goal scorer and playmaker at the University of Virginia.
Brian said she wasn't as nervous as she expected. She didn't look nervous.
"Lloyd's irreplaceable; she's such a player," Herdman said. "And when you don't see her on the lineup, you look and go 'We've got a good chance tonight.' But I thought Morgan, for a young player, showed great composure and a good touch. She dealt with Sinclair well in the first half, a defensive responsibility. You could see she had been given that responsibility. Second half, yeah, we were able to play around her a bit more. She's got a bright future -- like every other U.S. player that they've got in this squad."
There is some significance to Brian's start in this particular game. There are still 16 months remaining until the World Cup arrives -- relevant if, of course, we assume that the United States will navigate the qualification process -- but that might not be as much time as it now seems. Excluding goalkeepers, Sermanni said there are between 27 and 32 outfield players he considers viable options for a qualifier or World Cup-level game. Now consider that seven of the players who started for Greg Ryan in the first game of 2006 went on to start the World Cup opener the next season. Eight players who started for Pia Sundhage in the first game of 2010 started the World Cup opener in 2011. Will there be a place as soon as a year from now for Brian in a midfield crowded with the likes of Lloyd, Lauren Holiday, Rapinoe, Tobin Heath, O'Reilly and others? Maybe not in the starting lineup, but it grows more difficult by the day to envision a roster that doesn't include her in some capacity. And after a night like Friday, well, who knows?
Asked how he will handle a college junior who must strike some balance between school and the national team, Sermanni grinned slightly.
"Between national team and school," he corrected. "You got that the wrong way round. We'll work with the university; we'll work with her mom and dad; we'll work with Morgan to get the right balance between her national team development and her studies. Studies and college are very important, so we'll manage her so that hopefully she'll be able to do both successfully."
Leroux helped the United States start the year off on the right foot (or, in the case of her finish, the left foot). Brian showed why the team might stay several steps ahead of the competition for years to come.
"We're still trying stuff out and seeing what works," Leroux said. "The depth on this team is amazing. And I'm so happy that I get to play with these 24 girls."