REIMS, France — The United States women’s national team hung a World Cup-record 13 goals on Thailand to open their title defense on Tuesday. And no, they were not about to apologize afterward for running up the score against a clearly overmatched foe, for a variety of reasons.
Reason No. 1?
“This is a world championship,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said flatly in her post-match news conference. “I think that to be respectful to opponents is to play hard. As a coach, I don’t find it my job to go and harness my players and reel them in because this is what they dreamt about. This is it for them.”
The margin of victory was the largest at any previous World Cup, men’s or women’s. It was undoubtedly humiliating for the Thais, who are making only their second World Cup appearance this summer. There’s no getting around that.
But the Americans had lots to consider beyond the feelings of their opponents or the fans watching, first and foremost goal differential. In a group that includes Sweden, which knocked the U.S. out of the 2016 Olympics and were the only team to take a point off the eventual champs in Canada four years ago, that tiebreaker could be the difference between finishing atop their foursome (one that also includes Chile) or not.
“Goal differential matters,” said defender Kelley O’Hara, who helped open the floodgates when she set up the first of Alex Morgan’s five tallies just 12 minutes into the contest. “At the end of the day, you can’t feel bad for scoring as many goals as possible.”
Perhaps the biggest reason to keep piling on had to do with momentum. Tournaments more often than not are won by the hottest team, not necessarily the best one. After the host country France, unanimously considered the Americans’ biggest challenger, beat South Korea 4-0 in the competition opener, the U.S. wanted to make a statement by coming out of the gates strong.
“You play players who get hot,” Ellis said. “And if you can get as many hot as you possibly can, feeling good, feeling the back of the net, that’s so important. Those feelings are what can help you through the tournament in terms of the next game. We have to come out and play as hard as we possibly can every single game. This will be an incredibly hard World Cup. This is only game one.”
So Ellis was thrilled with the performance of Morgan, who scored just once in 2015, and just as pleased to see second-half substitutes Mallory Pugh and Carli Lloyd both score after coming on. “That was the message going in for me,” Lloyd said. “Just keep the foot down on the pedal.”
Most of the questions to both Ellis and her players revolved around the lopsided scoreline, or if the Americans should’ve emphatically celebrated the six strikes that came after the 70th minute. “I’ll be honest,” Ellis said, “I sit here and I go, if this was 10-0 at a men’s World Cup, are we getting the same questions?”
“It’s how you want to start a tournament,” she continued. “You want to have that feeling. It’s having players feel good about their game. It is about building momentum, it is about getting that first game under your belt. It kind of lights a little bit of a fire in terms of confidence, for sure.”
That’s not to say the U.S. didn’t have sympathy for Thailand. After the final whistle, the Americans could be seen consoling their counterparts.
“Thailand’s goalkeeper [Sukanya Chor Charoenying] had some good saves, and in the first half their team was organized,” said Lloyd, who tied a record by scoring in her fifth straight Women’s World Cup game. “Hopefully they continue to hold their heads high.”
Meantime, Morgan made a point of having a quick word with Thai-American striker Miranda Nild who, like the U.S. headliner, starred at the University of California.
“She said to keep my head up, and that this is only the first game. It was really sweet,” a visibly emotional Nild said. “We’re a developing program, we all know that. With this game under our belt, it will give us more knowledge going forward.”
As Nild was being ushered away by a Thai team staffer, a reporter asked if she thought the Americans had been unsportsmanlike.
“No,” she said.
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