On a night dominated by a moving show of unity, the Lionesses edged the USA, winning a thrillingly open battle between the European champions and world champions 2-1 to maintain Sarina Wiegman’s unbeaten run as England manager.
England’s win over the World Cup holders was their first since an 89th-minute goal from Ellen White gave them victory in the 2017 SheBelieves Cup, and it was only their third ever win against the Americans in 19 games. The gap, though, is closer than ever, with the Football Association investing heavily from top to bottom in a bid to bridge it.
This fixture always matters, because it is the young pretenders up against the world’s best, but it was dripping with extra poignancy. To mark the 50th anniversary of the first official England women’s match on 18 November, 12 members of the original 1972 squad took to the field clutching the long overdue caps they had been presented with before the match. Close to 150 former and current players were also presented to the crowd at half-time.
The game has come a long way. But the celebrations of just how far women’s football has come, with this fixture the fastest-selling England game – men’s or women’s – at the new Wembley were tempered by moving acknowledgments of just how far there is to go, even in one of the most advanced women’s footballing nations.
The Sally Yates report, which found emotional and sexual abuses to be “systemic” within women’s domestic football in the US was published on Monday. In solidarity during a traumatic week for the US women’s national team, all players took to the field wearing teal armbands, the Wembley arch was lit in the color that represents the campaign against sexual violence, and both sides stood united behind a “Protect the players “banner before kick-off.
There had been questions about whether the US players would take part in these games, with Spain up next in this international window. The head coach, Vlatko Andonovski, had said the squad would be given whatever support they required and could sit out training, meetings and matches as they needed because “this is more than a game”.
However players – and this US team in particular – are used to playing through the pain and struggle, in the knowledge that we still live in a time where, unfortunately, success on the pitch is critical to forcing hands and change off it.
Both teams were missing key players for the Wembley showdown. Alex Morgan, who has been in electric form, Catarina Macario and Tobin Heath were among the many names to be ruled out through injury before the US squad was even announced, while Taylor Kornieck and Mal Pugh were both withdrawals. For England there was no Alessia Russo or Leah Williamson.
Instead of Russo, Lauren Hemp led the line, with Beth Mead and Chloe Kelly either side of her.
For the visiting team, the potent young duo Trinity Rodman and Sophia Smith lined up alongside veteran Megan Rapinoe in a front three. That potency was almost instantly demonstrated as Smith swept in on the left but her effort on goal was tame and easy for Mary Earps.
It took 10 minutes for the European champions to put the USA behind for the first time in 22 games. Mead was critical, the golden ball and golden boot winner at the Euros flying forward on the right and swinging a cross into the middle. The centre-back Alana Cook could only propel the ball into the path of Hemp with her sliding body and the Manchester City forward slotted past Alyssa Naeher.
England had the lead but it was a wide-open encounter and just shy of the half-hour mark the world champions were level. Lindsey Horan, their captain, put pressure on Georgia Stanway as she attempted to collect Millie Bright’s underhit pass and forced the ball to Smith who collected and fired coolly past Earps.
England’s lead was restored four minutes later, with a high foot from the substitute Hailie Mace, on in place of the injured Emily Fox, catching Lucy Bronze as she bent to head the ball and a VAR review resulting in a penalty and a yellow card for Mace . Stanway converted from the spot, firing low into the corner with Naeher having gone the wrong way.
The Americans could feel aggravated that they weren’t back level before the break. Smith nutmegged Bright on the break sending the ball across the box, Rapinoe backheeled it past Bronze and Rodman’s low shot flew past Earps. It was a beautifully worked goal, but VAR ruled Smith was very narrowly offside in the buildup.
There was little to separate the teams after the break, but both threatened. With 63 caps between the four starting players in the US backline before this match and Williamson absent for England, both defenses looked fallible.
There was late drama when a penalty was awarded to the USA for handball but overturned, with the ball ricocheting off Hemp’s backside rather than his arm. The final threes would yield no reward for either side.
The World Cup is nine months away and England can take heart from a win against the competition’s holders, while the United States can take heart from getting through the game, and the week.