U.S. women’s soccer team overcomes slow start in World Cup tuneup

For much of Sunday’s friendly against South Africa at Levi’s Stadium, the U.S. women’s national team hardly looked like the defending World Cup champion. There were sloppy giveaways, poor touches and missed chances galore. It took the Americans 37 minutes to put a shot on frame.

The Americans’ cohesion did come into sharper focus with each passing minute, and they pulled out a 3-0 win. It was a positive result for their first game after coach Jill Ellis finalized the 23-member roster ahead of next month’s World Cup in France.

“The World Cup games, they don’t always start perfectly,” Ellis said. “It’s about the ability of a team to get better in a game and grow in a game.”

Sunday afternoon’s game before 22,788 in Santa Clara marked the first of three final tuneup matches for the Americans before they head overseas. The U.S. faces New Zealand on Thursday in St. Louis, then travels to Harrison, N.J., to play Mexico on May 26.

Samantha Mewis scored twice to push the U.S. past an overmatched South Africa side that will make its first World Cup appearance next month. The Americans claimed a 19-5 edge in the shots category, though the discrepancy actually seemed bigger in a game that was played almost entirely on South Africa’s half of the field.

The afternoon’s most memorable moment came near the very end. With just a few minutes left in stoppage time, Redding native Megan Rapinoe whipped a cross to Mallory Pugh, who juked a defender inside the box and fired a pass to Carli Lloyd. The team’s oldest player turned and slipped her shot underneath the goalkeeper, triggering the crowd’s loudest roars of the day as teammates mobbed their captain in the corner.

The sequence encapsulated Ellis’ player-selection philosophy heading into the World Cup. Rapinoe and Lloyd, linchpins on the 2015 squad, driving an experienced unit toward goal, with a boost from Pugh, the team’s second-youngest player at age 21.

“Whatever minutes they get, it’s about being a game-changer,” said Ellis, who picked 12 players from the 2015 group that prevailed in Canada. “Carli just lives for those moments.”

Five starters in Sunday’s game — Alex Morgan (Cal), Christen Press, Julie Ertz (Santa Clara), Abby Dahlkemper (Sacred Heart Prep) and Kelley O’Hara — have ties to the Bay Area. Press, a Hermann Trophy winner at Stanford in 2010, used her speed to puncture South Africa’s back line on several occasions but wasn’t able to find the net before being replaced by Pugh in the 77th minute. Menlo Park native and former Stanford player Tierna Davidson, the team’s youngest player at age 20, provided a spark off the bench with her attacking forays down the left side.

Though this team appears much the same as the 2015 squad, Ellis and her players echoed the same answer when asked about what makes this group different, if anything.

“We have so many players on the field that can play so many positions,” said O’Hara, who counted Press as a teammate at Stanford. “I think that this is the first team we’ve really had where everybody can play everywhere because we all understand our different roles. … We’re just a threat in all areas of the field.”

The U.S. begins its title defense June 11 with a group-play match against Thailand in Reims. The Americans are in Group F with Thailand, Chile and Sweden.

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