The U.S. women’s national team had a dream start to a July that it hopes will include a deep run at the 2021 Tokyo Olympic tournament.
The USWNT registered a convincing 4-0 Olympic tuneup win over Mexico in East Hartford, Conn., on Thursday and in the process saw one of its stars make an immediate impact in her long-awaited return.
Christen Press netted twice and Sam Mewis scored again, but Tobin Heath’s goal after a lengthy spell on the sidelines was what had everyone talking postgame.
Fairytale return for Heath
Out of action for six months with a combination of ankle and knee injuries suffered while with Manchester United, Heath couldn’t have asked for a more satisfying return to the field since she last played for Man United on Dec. 20.
She scored just 52 seconds after coming off the bench in the pouring rain at Rentschler Field. Her audacious drive from 30 yards out pinged off the left post and in, just how she had imagined it.
“It was huge. I didn’t know if I’d get back to this place,” Heath revealed postgame. “It took a lot of work and patience . . . it was hard. But I was really happy with that [goal].”
“I had a long time to think about what it would be like to get back on the field. You play the game a lot in your head while you’re not doing it, so it was one of those things that slowed down and it was picture perfect,” she said of the goal. “I just took a look and saw that I could do it.”
It was her first game for the USWNT since November 2020, and in her postgame comments she made a second mention that at one point she didn’t think she’d be “here sitting back talking to you guys.” But when she was asked about her long journey back, she cut off the injury talk once and for all.
“Honestly, I don’t really want to talk about the specifics or even think about it anymore. I just want to focus on my football going forward,” she said.
Heath’s recovery has gone so well that U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski said he didn’t hesitate to bring her on in a downpour that made the field slick. He said that Heath’s entry was a predetermined substitution cleared by the high-performance staff. He’s now focused on getting her the minutes he says she needs.
“Physically, she’s ready. Medically, she doesn’t have anything to hold her back and there’s no concerns from that standpoint,” Andonovski said. “In terms of the goal, that’s a Tobin type of a goal. That’s the thing she can come up with and not many players can do or come up with.”
Press can’t be stopped
Andonovski will be hoping that the run of form that Christen Press is experiencing can last for at least one more month. And there’s no reason to believe that she can’t keep it up.
She scored two more goals Thursday and they were the product of keen soccer instincts and decisive movements in the box, the type that Andonovski says she’s been working to perfect.
“She’s a very intelligent player when she’s in and around the box,” he said. “Understands the movement of the defenders and knows how to move well off them. But we spend a lot of time working on those movements, working on targeting players or areas. And I’m just happy we were able to capitalize on some of them.”
Press has now been involved in 36 goals in her last 36 USWNT games (18 goals, 18 assists). If the USA wins gold in Tokyo, she’ll likely play a big part in it.
First sister-to-sister goal in U.S. history
The U.S. opener in Thursday’s win was scored by Sam Mewis off a pass from sister Kristie Mewis, who got another start in central midfield alongside her sibling. The chest-bump celebration (below) was Sam’s idea, proposed before the game via text in case they were to combine for a goal.
It was a moment that will be remembered by the more than 40 friends and family members who traveled down from Massachusetts to East Hartford to watch the Mewis sisters in action. And Sam Mewis was arguably the best player on the field.
The inclusion of Kristie Mewis on the Olympic team was considered a mild surprise given her recent return to the national team after a multiyear absence due to injury. She was self-critical postgame — “I think I was sloppy in certain areas,” she said — but Andonovski sounded more pleased with her showing, saying that “she proved she deserves to be on this team.”
Macario shines off the bench
Catarina Macario’s performances in the USWNT’s June match series were subdued and may have been a factor in her making the alternate list and missing the cut for the final 18-player Olympic roster.
Against Mexico, the 21-year-old looked nothing like the June version of herself. Coming off the bench, she was inspired and confident as she dribbled past defenders and threaded passes to teammates — creative flashes that the U.S. could surely find useful against the more obstinate defensive blockades at the Olympics.
And if an impending change in the Olympic roster rules becomes official and allows alternates to become part of an expanded 22-player roster and available for matches, that could prove a game-changer based on what Macario displayed in her 15-minute stint.
“What we saw from Catarina was something we expect from her every time she steps on the field,” Andonovski said. “We saw her creativity and ability to combine with her teammates — we saw that with Tobin [Heath] and with Sam [Mewis] and we saw a little bit of individual creativity and ability to eliminate players in a 1-v-1 situation. So for the minutes she was on the field, I thought she performed very well.”