Football Ferns coach Jitka Klimkova has talked a lot about lessons this week, and there was plenty to learn in Wellington on Wednesday.
On the scale of recent matches against the United States, this one wasn’t so bad, as a severely understrength Ferns team were on a hiding to nothing against the world champions.
The New Zealand side were thoroughly outclassed, succumbing 4-0 to the visitors in front of a crowd of 12,508 – a record for a Football Ferns game in New Zealand.
The Ferns resisted for a long time – longer than most expected – before the United States scored three goals in the space of 11 minutes early in the second half, then eased off towards the end.
But the final result wasn’t as bad as many feared, given the absence of first-choice players and the five-goal margins in the last four encounters.
American midfielder Rose Lavelle was a class above, as she dictated proceedings superbly, among a squad in the middle of their offseason.
While the endeavour and grit of the Ferns was admirable, the inability to fashion a decent goal-scoring opportunity was a disappointment, though they finally earned a corner in the 94th minute, after a late flurry.
There will also be regret that they couldn’t hold onto the clean sheet longer in the second half, though the Americans had also wasted some good chances in the first period, with 15 shots to two across the match and 75 per cent possession.
Right back Grace Neville had a solid debut, while the experience of Ali Riley and Betsy Hassett was vital.
It was key for the Ferns to avoid an early concession. Klimkova opted for a compact 4-4-2 shape, with Riley and Anna Green the makeshift centre backs and Ashleigh Ward and Neville outside them. Grace Jale, Hassett, Daisy Cleverley and Olivia Chance were the midfield quartet, with Ava Collins and Gabi Rennie leading the line.
Plan A was clear. Get numbers behind the ball, deny space and close down quickly. And the Ferns, buoyed by vocal support, were up for it, showing an intensity and energy that hasn’t always been apparent in Klimkova’s reign.
Once they got over the fear factor of facing the United States, the New Zealanders tried to work their way into the match. Nothing startling, just small wins and moments in possession, albeit mostly in their own half.
The Americans took time to get going, though the class of midfielders Lavelle and Lindsey Horan was apparent. Lavelle should have done better after beating two players on the edge of the area, while Horan was casual with the goal gaping in the 18th minute, though goalkeeper Erin Nayler managed a superb reflex stop.
Midge Purse then hit the post with a swinging effort that deceived Nayler, though it may have been a cross. Alex Morgan, who had a quiet first half, ignored a teammate at the far post to waste an opportunity, before Mallory Swanson’s free kick drifted into the net, but was scratched for offside.
With 79 per cent possession for the visitors, the halftime stalemate was a bonus for the Ferns – but it didn’t last long.
Substitute winger Trinity Rodman should have scored – after stealing in at the far post – but made amends minutes later, cutting inside to provide the cross which rewarded Swanson’s perfect run. That settled the Americans, who went up a gear, with Lavelle and Horan having further chances, before Morgan doubled their advantage.
The goal was made by another delightful piece of skill from Lavelle, whose backheeled pass took three defenders out of play, allowing Morgan to finish.
It got worse quickly, as Swanson beat an ill-judged offside trap to slot home. By this stage Lavelle had been rested – to the relief of the Ferns – while Riley was also replaced by Liz Anton and rookie midfielder Grace Wisnewski got on for the last 20 minutes.
The Ferns kept pushing – without manufacturing anything of note – as the Americans were content to sit on their four-goal lead, after Lynn Williams had headed home superbly from another precise Rodman cross.