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 main 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, 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 would take to the field clutching the long overdue caps they had been presented with ahead of the match. While close to 150 former and current players were 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 acknowledgements 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 colour that represents the campaign against sexual violence, and players 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. Head coach Vlatko Andonovski had said that players would be given whatever support they needed and could sit out training, meetings and games 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 success on the pitch forces 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 captain Leah Williamson.
Instead of Russo, Lauren Hemp led the line, with Beth Mead and Chloe Kelly either side of her.
For the visiting team, potent young duo Trinity Rodman and Sophia Smith lined up alongside veteran Megan Rapinoe in a front three. That potency was almost demonstrated instantly 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. Euros golden ball and golden boot winner Mead was critical, flying forward on the right and swinging a cross into the middle. 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 back level. Captain Lindsey Horan 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 substitute Hailie Mace, on in place of injured Emily Fox, catching Lucy Bronze as she bent to head the ball and a VAR review awarding a penalty and handing Mace a yellow card. Stanway converted from the spot, firing low into the corner with Naeher having gone the wrong way.
The Americans could feel aggrieved that they were not 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 prior to this match, and Williamson absent for England, both defences looked fallible.
There was late controversy, as a penalty awarded for handball was overturned, with the ball ricocheting off Hemp’s bum rather than her arm.
The final throes for both sides would yield no reward for either side. With the World Cup nine months away England can take heart from a win against the competition’s holders, while the United States can take heart from getting through the week, and the game.