SYDNEY, Australia — In just 24 seconds, the United States took the lead against Australia in its 3-0 win on Saturday. Less than half a minute and Ashley Hatch had capitalised on a defensive mix-up to score her first-ever USWNT goal.
For the Americans, it the perfect way to silence a record home crowd. For Tony Gustavsson’s young side, thrown in at the deep end, the pool suddenly felt like the Pacific Ocean.
With one eye on the 2023 Women’s World Cup, which Australia will co-host with New Zealand, the Matildas boss took his quest to blood new national team players to a whole new level. Jessika Nash, 17, became the 13th Australian player to make her international debut in 2021, starting in the heart of defence.
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That, however, wasn’t the only surprising selection in the starting XI. It would be fair to expect a seasoned veteran like Clare Polkinghorne or Alanna Kennedy named alongside the teenager to guide her through a match against arguably the world’s best team. But the pair weren’t in the matchday squad, having been rested and ruled out through injury respectively. There wasn’t even a Steph Catley or a Ellie Carpenter shifted centrally from their usual full-back roles to help out.
Instead, alongside Nash was 19-year-old Melbourne Victory fullback Courtney Nevin. With five caps between them, all belonging to Nevin, the future for the Matildas — or at least a potential version of it — was now.
In that calamitous opening minute, the inexperience of the defensive pair was on full display. A tame header, a failed clearance, and a lack of cohesion saw Hatch pounce. The Washington Spirit striker easily outmuscled Nash, almost a decade her junior, and fired the USWNT into the lead — silencing the 36,109 home fans in the process.
The battle between Nash and Hatch emphasised where these respective sides are at in their life cycles. Both coaches are using this two-game series in Australia to take a look at some fresh faces, but the profiles of the respective squads are vastly different.
Zooming in to the starting XIs on Saturday, the Matildas used some of their experienced core alongside the new players. The line-up had an average of 62 caps versus the USWNT’s 32. Both sides featured one debutant.
But the age profiles were inversed. The starting line-up for the USWNT were all aged between 23 and 28. For the Matildas, the age range spanned from 17 to 30. It’s a theme that becomes even more obvious in the context of the wider squads selected for the series.
Gustavsson’s side had 11 players aged 23 or under in the team, six of them teenagers. The USWNT had five players aged 23 or under and none younger than 21.
Nash and Hatch provide tangible evidence as to what those numbers show us. Hatch is 26, fresh off an NWSL Championship win with Washington, and the league’s Golden Boot winner. It was her debut goal in her third appearance for the USWNT. Nash, on the other hand, was in the heart of defence for her senior Matildas debut. It came a little under a year after her A-League Women bow with Canberra United as a 16-year-old. Perhaps on another day she would have been supported by a more experienced defensive partner, or even screened by an out and out No. 6 rather than Emily van Egmond, who is utilised best as a creative, attacking No. 10.
Australia’s Jessika Nash heads back for the restart as the USWNT celebrates its opening goal on Saturday. Mark Kolbe/Getty Images
All of these circumstances culminated into a brutal debut for Nash. Her afternoon ended at half-time with Charli Grant coming on in her place and right-back Carpenter shifted in beside Nevin. But this is the reality that Australia is facing right now — a lack of depth, a demand both internally and externally for results, and a rapidly approaching home World Cup where expectations are sky high. Gustavsson admitted as much post-match.
“We need depth in the back-line and we need to look at players and be brave enough to actually get them into these types of games,” Gustavsson said.
“Normally if this was 15 years ago, and I was coaching, I’d probably give them 10 minutes at the end when we’d either won or lost the game but those minutes are not at the same value as warming up, record crowd, U.S. in front of you, in the stadium that is going to hold the World Cup final.
“[For them to] be able to deal with that in that environment is what we need.”
The story could have been slightly different if the Matildas had their shooting boots on. The defensive errors which led to each of the U.S.’s goals could have been softened if the Matildas had scored some themselves.
Kyah Simon missed a sitter in the 38th minute. Caitlin Foord’s lead up play on the left flank was excellent, but Simon’s attempt forced an impromptu stadium-wide Mexican wave of hands on heads that followed the flight of the ball — up and over.
There were also chances to Foord and Sam Kerr which demanded acrobatic saves out of debutant U.S. keeper Casey Murphy.
The North Carolina Courage shot stopper, 25, was another player who perfectly encapsulated that while Vlatko Andonovski’s squad might be less experienced at the international level, it benefits from experience in other facets.
Her Player of the Match award was well-deserved but spoke to the number of chances the Matildas had but failed to convert. Meanwhile the USWNT took its chances. And for a team that hadn’t spent much time together that was enough for now.
“It was only two or three days of practice that we got in preparation before this match,” Murphy explained post-match.
“And so each of those practices were huge and we had to be super detail oriented and focused and a lot of the work too was in our film sessions. And so we just knew we had to do everything we could and control what we could control leading up to the match, even though it was a very short time frame we had in preparation for the game.”
Casey Murphy’s first game for the USWNT was a spectacular one, and she deservedly walked away with a clean sheet and Player of the Match award. Steven Markham/Speed Media/Icon Sportswire
Goal two came from a more experienced foot but showed again the difference between young and inexperienced versus simply inexperienced.
Margaret Purce’s run down the right saw her engage in a battle with Nevin. The Gotham FC forward — winning her eighth cap — bested Nevin to break free and cut the ball back for Rose Lavelle to squeeze underneath Matildas keeper Teagan Micah.
Lindsey Horan, wearing the captain’s armband, converted from the spot to make it three, before Andonovski gave debuts to Ashley Sanchez (22), Morgan Weaver and Bethany Balcer (both 24).
Ultimately both sides succeeded in giving less experienced players game time. After all, young, inexperienced players have to start somewhere. Sometimes, it’s an ugly process.
For the USWNT, that ugliness manifested itself in the performance; the score-line not matching the showing.
The playing group was already less familiar with each other and had barely any time to work together. They were clinical where their opponents were profligate. And if this is the starting point of the new era of the team, then there are certainly worse ways to begin.
For Australia, the growing pains associated with creating depth are difficult to watch, particularly when the expectations placed on this team are so high.
It can be argued that Gustavsson exposed Nash to situations outside of her skill level too soon and without the appropriate support. But that doesn’t mean she will never be ready.
With the right care, this game could be the beginning of a long national team career. It is support veteran striker Simon says the squad has and will give all its debutants.
“We play the sport for these occasions,” she said. “You can only learn from your mistakes, and you know, at over 100 caps for myself and missing a chance like that … it doesn’t get any easier from your first cap to 100+.
“So we’ll definitely get around the girls. And I think we have a very supportive group of girls and a great group here in the national team, so, well applaud the girls for having their first cap.
“But at the same time, we pride ourselves on success and winning games. And we all know that it wasn’t good enough today, and we’ll head to Tuesday and hopefully, can be a more memorable game.”