USWNT held to draw against New Zealand

AP Photo/Jay LaPrete

New Zealand’s Hannah Wilkinson broke free of American defender Rachel Beuhler and blasted a shot past Hope Solo in the 87th minute to give the Football Ferns their first draw against the U.S. in 26 years.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There was almost no visible reaction when it was over. No players piled atop each other in unchecked celebration on one end. No players slumped disconsolately on the grass at the other.

The scoreboard showed a draw in a game that ultimately didn't mean anything. It just happened that the United States lost. And New Zealand won it. And on that last count, it mattered.

In the 87th minute of a game that appeared headed for a quiet conclusion with the U.S. in front 1-0, New Zealand's Hannah Wilkinson broke clear from defenders on a counter attack, escaped the offside flag and drove a shot to the far post past Hope Solo. For the first time in a long time this year, the U.S. was in trouble.

Three days after the U.S. eased to a 4-1 win against the same New Zealand team in San Francisco, the Football Ferns earned a rare point against the team ranked No. 1 in the world.

"I think it means quite a lot; I think it's awesome," Wilkinson said. "Facing the U.S. is always such a challenge -- I mean, they're the best in the world. And to draw a point against them is amazing. I couldn't be more proud of my team today."

Make no mistake about how unlikely a point this was. New Zealand entered the game at Columbus Crew Stadium with a 1-10-0 all-time record against the United States. Its lone win came in the first game the two countries ever played against each other, a 1-0 result on a neutral field in Chinese Taipei just before Christmas in 1987. The run of dominance since then was almost total. In 10 consecutive wins, the United States outscored New Zealand 42-3.

Beyond the series between the two countries, it was the first time the U.S. dropped points on home soil since a draw last year against Germany.

"I think any time the U.S. women's national team ties, it's a loss for us," Sydney Leroux said. "Obviously, we're very proud, and I think we should have won. We're going to be upset about this for a while. But like I said, we're going to move on."

The U.S. appeared poised to claim the lead inside of the game's first 10 minutes and roll on from there. Playing in a forward 4-3-3 formation for the first time under new coach Tom Sermanni, Heather O'Reilly lofted a pass from the right flank toward Leroux on the far side of the 18-yard box. The ensuing chaos that comes when Leroux lurks near any loose ball in the box resulted in a handball by New Zealand and a penalty. But goalkeeper Erin Nayler guessed right, literally, and stopped Abby Wambach's shot from the spot.

AP Photo/Jay LaPrete

American forward Sydney Leroux celebrates after nailing a goal before halftime against New Zealand.

As omens go, it served to suggest the evening might be more gritty than glamorous. Gritty suited New Zealand.

In truth, the Football Ferns played well enough in the first half to do themselves credit, pushing back at American possession with quick counters, but not so well that they couldn't have been down multiple goals.

Wambach headed a ball off the crossbar midway through the half on a good service from Kristie Mewis, and she sent another header just wide of the post with 10 minutes to play before halftime. O'Reilly, too, couldn't convert a good look from close range as the half wound to a close, her shot parried away by Nayler.

Just as it appeared the Americans might go to halftime scoreless for the first time since early June, Leroux gathered in a pass from Mewis and did one of the things she does best, driving her way to the top of the 18-yard box, shrugging off challenges from two defenders and finishing low and hard past Nayler at the post in the 42nd minute.

Unfortunately, that bit of largely individual brilliance stood in contrast to the team's struggle all night to build attack.

Because it was the U.S. and New Zealand, a second goal seemed obligatory at some point, but as the second half wore on, the home side generated fewer and fewer good chances and the Ferns' counters, particularly from Wilkinson racing down the right side, looked more and more worrisome.

"They kept going and made life difficult for us, and we really needed to score that second goal," Sermanni said. "We needed to score the second goal when we were dictating the game and dominating the game. We didn't do that. At 1-0, there is always a danger you give something up. That's what happened tonight.

"That's the great thing about soccer; it's a very tight game at times."

Currently a standout at the University of Tennessee, Wilkinson piled up the miles even before she took the field Wednesday night -- she played a game in Fayetteville, Ark., with the Lady Vols on Oct. 20, traveled to San Francisco to play for her country on Oct. 27 and then Columbus for this game. But she had enough left in the tank to not only slip behind Mewis and the U.S. back line with time winding down, but compose herself for the finish past Solo, who was one of the best players on the night for the U.S. and did well to come close on the goal.

"I had a little bit," Wilkinson said of her energy reserves. "We had so many good opportunities, so I think we kept pressing and pressing and I just kept thinking 'Just keep going, keep going.' I think it was just a mental challenge for me to keep going. I was pretty tired, but I kept going."

And so New Zealand keeps going. It's a national program that turned some heads when it reached the quarterfinals of the 2012 Olympics, enough heads at home, in fact, to receive a significant bump in funding in advance of the 2015 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. New Zealand has benefited from some Americans with Kiwi lineage, like outside back and Stanford alum Ali Riley, but more and more, it's sending its own products like Wilkinson and UCLA's Rosie White to top U.S. college programs.

It earned wins against Brazil and China this year and drew with rival Australia in Australia.

"They're a talented team, but the great thing they've got, they've been together for a lot of time and they work exceptionally hard for each other," said Sermanni, who watched the program's growth up close as coach of Australia for so many years. "I think their effort tonight was phenomenal, and they knocked us off our stride."

What Wednesday night was not was a massive setback for the U.S., any more than the previous comfortable win against New Zealand, or Australia and Mexico before that this fall, trumpeted a stroll to a World Cup title. Alex Morgan was on the bench Wednesday but wasn't going to play after a sustaining a minor injury in training before the game in San Francisco. And the team looked at times like a group playing a new formation from the outset for the first time under this coach. This is the time to experiment. It just didn't go so well this night.

The draw highlighted things to work on, not fatal flaws to dissect and obsess over. The United States should beat New Zealand, but the latter is now good enough that it may not always happen.

"They're a good team," Solo said. "They have speed, they pressured us on the back line. They didn't let us play out, which is kind of conducive to our style of play. They pressured hard, they kind of baited us, they wanted us to play out of the back. As soon as we did, they came hard. So we didn't really get into a good rhythm, put the ball down on the field and connect as many passes as we did against Australia. But you live, you learn. We're moving forward."

Her coach echoed the sentiment.

"There will be a few things for us to work on going forward, and as I say, that's OK," Sermanni said.

And there should be a few things for New Zealand to remember about this night, starting with the effort that pushed Wilkinson forward and the skill that finished the chance.

It wasn't a win, but it was a night to remember.

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