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Heath and Lavelle Return, Morgan Scores a Brace in 5-0 Defeat of New Zealand

Mallory Pugh cracks Alex Morgan up before they pose for the Starting XI photo. (MEG LINEHAN/Equalizer Soccer)

A second half brace from Alex Morgan and the return of two fan favorites helped the USWNT coast to their second victory in a row over New Zealand, a 5-0 smash. Jill Ellis made several changes to the starting lineup, rotating in Casey Short and Christen Press as well as hometown girl Rose Lavelle in her first appearance for the US since her hamstring injury in Norway in June.

The US got to work quickly, keeping sustained pressure in their attacking half. Mallory Pugh came close first when she sent it just high over the net early, and New Zealand goalkeeper Erin Nayler had to make a big save in the 10th minute after Julie Ertz tried to flick it in. Nayler spilled the ball, but no US player was there to take advantage of the rebound.

In the 33rd minute, Lavelle was substituted out for Lindsey Horan in a pre-planned move to manage Lavelle’s post-injury minutes. Just three minutes later, Sam Mewis sent in a perfect long pass from the right flank. Horan rose above her defender at the top of the box and headed in a ball over Nayler, who was caught off her line.

The US continued to dominate possession in the midfield. Although they found a lot of success on the left flank, the next strike came from the right as well. Just before halftime, Horan found Pugh running up the wing and laid on a perfectly weighted ball. Pugh beat her defenders with pure pace, took a few touches to settle, and sent it past an encroaching Nayler at near post.

Taylor Smith, Lynn Williams, and Alex Morgan came on at halftime for Becky Sauerbrunn, Press, and Rapinoe. The backline shuffled with Smith taking up right back, Kelley O’Hara moving to left back, and Short moving central alongside Abby Dahlkemper.

Morgan wasted no time, finding the back of the net just seconds into the half on her first touch. With Pugh holding up the ball near the endline on the left flank, Morgan made a diagonal run into the box. Pugh’s pass was deflected into Morgan’s path and she tapped it in to beat Nayler at near post, which was a troublesome spot for the goalkeeper all night.

New Zealand was clearly gassed in the second half. Although they tried to mount attacks, they often didn’t amount to anything or ended with hopeful crosses that were easily blocked. Alyssa Naeher was never really tested. The US was ready to pounce on midfield turnovers, and the fresh legs of speedy players like Williams and Smith proved deadly.

In the 55th minute, Williams used that pace to bring the ball up the right flank and into the box. O’Hara collected the rebound on the left side from the ensuing shot by Pugh and crossed the ball back in to return to Williams, who caught Nayler going the wrong way and headed it in.

The US wasn’t finished there. In the 68th minute, continuing their trend of attacking from the flanks, Pugh took the ball up the left flank and passed it to Morgan, who settled with one touch before striking it decisively on her next, over Nayler and off the underside of the crossbar. This was Pugh’s second assist of the night, both to Morgan, who has four goals in her last three games with the US.

Perhaps the most exciting event of the night wasn’t even a goal. In the 72nd minute, Tobin Heath subbed in for Pugh for her first minutes of competitive soccer since the SheBelieves Cup in March. Heath didn’t have a whole lot to do as the game got choppy in the dying minutes, but she had some good touches and was able to start shaking off the rust.

All players will return to their NWSL clubs for games this weekend, except for Crystal Dunn, who heads back to England to begin the FAWSL season with Chelsea. The team will reunite for a pair of games against the Korea Republic on October 19 and 22.

{Related: Lauletta: On O’Hara’s 100th, Ertz’s Brace, and More}

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