For as much hype as the U.S. women’s soccer team’s game at France deservedly got, it was ultimately still just a friendly.
So there was room for the perspective that U.S. coach Jill Ellis brought to her postgame press conference after the Americans were routed 3-1 by the upcoming World Cup’s hosts.
“I think we can be disappointed in the result, but not be discouraged,” Ellis said. “I think where are in terms of our process right now … we told our players we’re in a preseason — and this was a big ask — but not to lose sight of where we want to be. This was a great test for us tonight, but the final exam is in June.”
Ellis didn’t offer any details on the injuries that kept star midfielders Tobin Heath, Megan Rapinoe and Julie Ertz out of the game. The U.S. Soccer Federation said before the game that all three absences were precautionary.
But there was no lack of clarity about the effect those absences had. The U.S. struggled to keep possession of the ball, and France ran right through Ertz’s usual turf in central midfield. Ertz’s replacement, Morgan Brian, had little influence.
“We turned the ball over at times when we didn’t have good enough support under the ball to re-gain it,” Ellis said. "We all recognize that this is an opportunity for us to go away and continue to work, and be in a good position mentally to know that we can improve between now and then [the World Cup].”
There was some rust on the American machine, which was understandable. This was the players' first game action after a two-month winter break. But Ellis could still have brought in McCall Zerboni or Danielle Colaprico as substitutes for Brian, or given Samantha Mewis more than a six-minute cameo.
Ellis didn’t address those players by name, but she did address the overall sense that things didn’t work.
“We will improve,” Ellis said. “Ironically, this is a similar situation as [what the U.S. faced] in 2015. ... We know we have a lot more to give.”
That was a reference to the U.S.' 2-0 loss at France in February of 2015. Five months later, the Americans won the World Cup.
One player Ellis did discuss was 20-year-old left back Emily Fox. The University of North Carolina sophomore was given a start Saturday in her third senior national team appearance. It was a trial by fire, and she was burned — especially on France’s first goal. But it was also a chance to learn, and Ellis gave a strong endorsement of Fox’s potential.
“That’s why you put her in those situations,” Ellis said. “At this point, it’s continuing to encourage her. Because she’s by no means a finished product, but she’s got a lot of good things in her that we like.”
This much is certain: What was already a valuable trip abroad became even more so when France ended the Americans' 28-game unbeaten streak. That run was always going to end some day. Better that it happen in a friendly than at the World Cup.
Now it’s on to the next game, and it comes quickly. The U.S. plays at Spain on Tuesday (2:30 p.m., ESPN2 and Univision Deportes) in the first meeting between the nations.
Spain is a program on the rise. La Roja are ranked No. 12 in FIFA’s global standings, and are a trendy upset pick in a World Cup group with traditional powers Germany and China, plus debutante South Africa.
“Playing all these good teams is what we need to experience,” Ellis said. "If you roll out and you beat teams 5-0, there’s not a whole lot to learn. … That’s part of being a coach: making sure my players are put in challenging situations. Because that’s how you start to solidify them for the big moments