Any ambition Phil Neville’s Lionesses had of asserting their claim to the biggest rivals to four-time world champions the US took a heavy bruising as they slumped to a 2-0 defeat in their SheBelieves Cup opener.
It will not be the defeat that sees the pressure ramp up on Neville, whose side laboured to two wins in their seven games sandwiched by this tie and their defeat to the US in the World Cup semi-finals, more the manner of it.
If attempting to determine which side has the majority of their players domestically in their off-season and which is made up of those in the middle of a fiercely competitive league season you would have been forgiven for guessing incorrectly. England’s passing was sloppy at best and the Lionesses were second to every loose ball. It contrasted brutally with the slick confidence and intuition of an American side that has not lost in 14 months.
There was a party atmosphere as the sun set in Orlando. But it was quickly punctured as the clock ticked towards kickoff. If there was a feeling that any bad blood between these two sides would be watered down by the friendly occasion then the booming pyrotechnics and rambunctious chanting led by the American Outlaws fan group helped ratchet up the tension.
There were forearm bumps between the players as coronavirus precautions were taken, a strange sight given players would bash, crash and help each other to their feet throughout.
The absence of Ballon d’Or winning forward Megan Rapinoe from the starting lineup for the USWNT seemed strange. Last summer she sat out with injury, this time the decision to sit her out was more about preservation of their 34-year-old talisman. The only change to the starting XI from the World Cup semi-final game was forced, the pregnancy of Alex Morgan meaning Carli Lloyd stepped in for her 292nd cap. Their biggest change was off field, with Jill Ellis replaced by Vlatko Andonovski as head coach.
Phil Neville had been caught out by the benching of Rapinoe in Lyon, having broken apart the powerful Lucy Bronze, Nikita Parris and Jill Scott axis on the right by sticking versatile Rachel Daly in front of Bronze to try and help stifle the attack. Instead it had stunted England’s previous fluidity.
Seven players remained from that game for England and, bar players missing through injury, the line up and formation was much more familiar. The addition of 19-year-old Lauren Hemp, for her first start, proved fruitful. Within the first 15 minutes the fearless teenager had tested right-back Kelley O’Hara. With the defence expecting the cross to come in behind them Hemp cut in back towards the penalty spot but Ellen White had also been caught out by the move and her attempt to clamber the right side of the ball failed.
Hemp was England’s brightest outfield outlet. Her performance was matched only by Chelsea goalkeeper Carly Telford. The number one saved smartly from a Julie Ertz header – the defensive midfielder making her 100th appearance who was described by Neville as “phenomenal” and “probably the one player he would take out of that team” – before pulling off a fantastic double save to deny Lindsey Horan.
The Lionesses were extremely fortunate to be level at the break with the US pressing them hard and high and Neville’s somewhat makeshift back line, with Williamson standing in for injured Bronze at right back and a not very defensively minded Alex Greenwood at left back struggling with the pace and slick passing of Horan and Press.
It was only a matter of time for the US to make the breakthrough and to rub salt in the wound they hit two in two minutes. First, Press curled into the top right corner from 25-yards to cruelly end Telford’s resolute stand. Then, Horan cheekily clipped the ball into the run of Lloyd who had crept between Bright and Houghton before firing low past Telford with ease.
The rapturous cheering for Rapinoe as she warmed up was rewarded just past the hour mark when the stadium erupted on her introduction. While Andonovski’s changes were, on the whole, like for like as they looked to see out the game, Neville’s were baffling. In a game crying out for more fluidity from England up top, the manager waited until the 78th minute before bringing on joint WSL topscorer and menace Beth England. By then the damage was well done. Ertz was denied a goal in her century game by the offside flag and in the end the scoreline flattered the visiting team.