New Zealand have fallen to a 3-1 loss against a classy United States outfit but remain in a strong position to progress after the latest round of Group C matches at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in Papua New Guinea.
With France and Ghana having fought out a thrilling 2-2 draw in the pool’s other match, New Zealand’s knockout hopes are still very much alive and will be determined by the outcome of Monday’s all-important clash against the French.
Coach Leon Birnie and his side will go into that match with their noses in front on the table, despite being unable to take anything from the USA, one of the global giants of the female game.
New Zealand competed well for long periods last night at the PNG Football Stadium in Port Moresby but were ultimately undone by a disastrous beginning to the match.
The Meikayla Moore-captained team needed a solid start to lay the platform for a memorable result but instead found themselves two goals down after just eight minutes.
The States did not need to work hard for their third-minute opener as defender Elizabeth Anton suffered a moment she will be keen to forget in a hurry, the centre back dallying on the ball in front of goal and allowing Ashley Sanchez to steal possession before slotting home from close range.
If the first goal was of their own making, the second just five minutes later was largely down to individual brilliance as USA captain Mallory Pugh underlined why she has earned 17 senior international caps with an impressive glimpse of her quality. There didn’t appear to be a lot of danger as she pounced on the ball some distance out but then embarked on a direct run at the heart of the Kiwi defence and rifled an unstoppable shot past goalkeeper Nadia Olla.
At 2-0 down against such an accomplished side, New Zealand now had a steep hill to climb and there looked to be a real threat of the scoreline blowing out. But Birnie’s charges showed great character to stay in the game and went on to make life much more difficult for the States, particularly after the chance to regroup with a drinks break on the half hour.
Due to the stifling heat of Port Moresby, drink stoppages have been a regular feature of the tournament and New Zealand used this one wisely, Birnie imparting some words of wisdom that seemed to do the trick when the sides re-entered the field.
The Kiwis were again roared on by a small band of vocal supporters – made up of both locals who have adopted the team and travelling family members – and had them out of their seats when a far-post volley from Jasmine Pereira fizzed across the face of goal and narrowly wide. It was New Zealand’s best chance of the half and those sorts of opportunities continued to prove hard to come by in the second spell as the States reasserted their dominance.
The victors enjoyed a healthy advantage in the possession and shots-on-goal statistics but New Zealand hung in there and even threatened to take something from the match when a stunning Isabella Coombes goal gave them a lifeline in the 76th minute.
With just their first corner of the match, a well-worked routine had the USA defence under pressure and they were only able to partially clear a deep Paige Satchell cross. The loose ball landed near Coombes on the edge of the area and the midfielder showed great technique and composure to steer home a perfectly-placed volley, sending the New Zealand bench and fans into ecstasy.
There was now a chance of pulling off a remarkable result and Birnie went for it as he looked to complete an unlikely comeback, earlier throwing on Tayla Christensen – the heroine of a dramatic win against Ghana a few days earlier – and then fellow striker Emma Rolston as Pereira came off the wing to assume a more central position.
But as the underdogs pushed forward for the equaliser, they were always going to be more exposed at the back and the States took full advantage by hitting them with a sucker punch on the break in the 82nd minute. Ally Watt used her pace to good effect to sprint down the right and put herself one-on-one with Olla, whom she beat with a well-struck low shot into the far corner, despite being under plenty of pressure from the retreating New Zealand defenders.
It was a cruel blow for the Kiwis but, on the balance of the game, few would argue that the States did not deserve the win and Birnie had no complaints about the result.
“We knew USA were a quality side and we would have to play really well to match them,” he said.
“They started really brightly and you can’t afford to concede two goals in the first 15 minutes. From there, we said to the players that they had to stay in the game, there was a lot of pressure on us and we couldn’t concede a third or it would be game over,” he added.
“To the girls’ credit, we got through to half-time and then we spoke about a few little changes that would help us in the second half. We went out and did really well, we played well in patches and were a bit braver. We stuck to the game plan and were able to get ourselves back in the game. Then we pushed a few players up to try to get the equaliser and, unfortunately, USA intercepted and the girl finished really well to make it game over.”
USA now top the pool by one point over New Zealand, leaving the Kiwis and France with it all to play for in their final Group C match at Bava Park in Port Moresby on Monday.
New Zealand U-20 Women’s coach Leon Birnie
New Zealand 1 (Isabella Coombes 76’)
USA 3 (Ashley Sanchez 3’, Mallory Pugh 8’, Ally Watt 82’)
New Zealand: 21. Nadia Olla (GK), 2. Sarah Morton, 3. Sophie Stewart-Hobbs, 4. Elizabeth Anton, 6. Meikayla Moore (c), 7. Isabella Coombes, 8. Jasmine Pereira, 9. Martine Puketapu (11. Emma Rolston 80’), 10. Daisy Cleverley, 13. Paige Satchell (19. Jacqueline Hand 87’), 18. Grace Jale (16. Tayla Christensen 69’)
Substitutes not used: 1. Tessa Nicol (GK), 5. Samantha Murrell, 12. Malia Steinmetz, 14. Jade Parris, 15. Hannah Blake, Eileish Hayes
Coach: Leon Birnie