WINNIPEG, Manitoba - In her final public remarks before the United States' opening contest at the Women's World Cup, coach Jill Ellis said she didn't want it to be her team's best game. It was a quip meant to express a desire for her veteran-laden team to build up its strength and quality throughout the tournament. But that wish might have come true in a way.
Instead of imposing its will against an Australian team to which it had never lost, the Americans instead struggled to a 3-1 victory over the young, speedy Matildas Monday night.
The evening started with the overwhelmingly pro-American crowd of 31,148 at Winnipeg Stadium nearly shaking the building's rafters during the Star-Spangled Banner. There were more celebrations at the end, but in between there were a lot of nervous moments.
Australia surged at the U.S. defense time and time again throughout the first half. Without a true midfield stopper in the American lineup, there was a big gap in the center for 21-year-old Emily van Egmond and 22-year-old Katrina Gorry to exploit. On the flanks, 21-year-old Samantha Kerr repeatedly beat 30-year-old Ali Krieger one-on-one, including twice in the game's first five minutes.
With the Americans constantly backpedaling, there wasn't much time to establish an attacking flow of their own.
"We can be a lot better in possession and a lot more confident on the ball," said midfielder Megan Rapinoe, who scored two goals. "We got caught going long when we needed to settle down."
Rapinoe's first tally opened the scoring, and it came against the run of play. In the 12th minute, she trapped a headed pass from Abby Wambach, spun 180 degrees on a dime, charged forward and fired from 20 yards. The shot deflected off an Australian defender and left goalkeeper Melissa Barbieri stranded.
It was yet more proof of why Rapinoe is the Americans' most important creative force. With her teammates playing nervously early on, she provided a much-needed release of the tremendous pressure and expectations they shoulder.
"I didn't think we played with a rhythm and sense of calmness," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. She praised Rapinoe for having "ice running in her veins, but a lot of passion inside."
The Matildas were not deterred by going behind. Just seconds after Rapinoe scored, Kerr beat Krieger and hit a low zinger that forced a quick, sprawling save from U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo.
In the 27th minute, Australia's relentlessness finally paid off. Lisa De Vanna got open in the middle of the 18-yard box as three U.S. players converged on Michelle Heyman, who found enough space to square a pass to De Vanna. The veteran forward fired a first-time attempt past Solo.
Australia maintained its momentum in the early stages of the second half. But in the 61st minute the Americans regained the lead for good by giving the Matildas a taste of their own medicine. Sydney Leroux exploded down the left flank and set up Christen Press for a first-time, seeing-eye shot that sneaked into the far corner of Barbieri's net.
It is the first World Cup goal for Press, pegged by many observers as a potential breakout star in this tournament. Although she spent the evening primarily on the right side of midfield, she made the most of her one chance to let loose her predatory finishing skills, calling it a moment of "100 percent instinct."
Six minutes after scoring, Press was withdrawn by Ellis and replaced by Tobin Heath, a more natural winger. That meant that the less agile Wambach - who by then had missed two wide-open headers - became even more of a focal point of the U.S. attack.
Fortunately for the United States, Rapinoe rendered moot any concerns about the team's tactics in the closing stages. In the 78th minute, Rapinoe galloped up the left wing, and with Australian defenders backing up instead of pressing, she slammed a low shot past Barbieri.
At last, the Americans could truly relax. And they had the player who is always the most relaxed on the field to thank.