For years, New Zealand has been a team on the cusp of the next level. Much like Australia, the Football Ferns fielded young teams, developing talented players in their teenage years on the senior team.
This year, the experience of the core group has begun to show, and New Zealand’s results are evidence that the squad may be ready to step up to and consistently competing with top tier teams.
Seven players from New Zealand’s U-20 World Cup team are on the senior team’s roster for the upcoming pair of games against the United States, including Ali Riley. Riley captained Stanford to the 2009 NCAA final and grew up in Southern California but has been a New Zealand citizen her whole life. She never latched on with any regional or Olympic Development Programs in the U.S., and New Zealand called in 2006, her senior year of high school. Riley shined at that U-20 tournament, went on to play for the senior team at the 2007 World Cup and the rest is history (don’t remind U.S. Soccer scouts).
She has since been a key piece of the Football Ferns’ defense, which has long been their calling card. It’s their most experienced section of the field, from Riley, to Abby Erceg and Ria Percival, all from that 2006 U-20 team.
Riley just won the Swedish Damallsvenskan crown with LdB FC Malmö, which progressed to the round of 16 in the UEFA Champions League. She calls the league “incredible” and just signed an extension with Malmö through the 2015 season to continue gaining experience at a high level.
“Ali is such a consistent performer and everyone knows that she is quick,” New Zealand coach Tony Readings said on Friday from San Francisco. “She can defend very well – she’s one of the best defensive fullbacks around. I haven’t seen too many better. She’s aggressive, she’s got good defending technique and she’s quick. I think what Ali is really doing now is bringing a lot more to her game in terms of possession.”
That possession Readings speaks of is something the entire team continues to develop. Prior to 2011, New Zealand’s ability to hang in games against the world’s elite teams relied upon them defending for their lives. But that nudged toward fruition in at the 2011 World Cup under now Canada coach John Herdman, really began to show in London last year under Readings and has set in fully in 2013.
“We’ve always been strong defending; we had to defend a lot in the past,” Riley said from San Francisco, near her old stomping grounds with Stanford and FC Gold Pride. “Now we are playing, we are scoring goals. That is so exciting for us. The girls playing abroad has everyone improved so much. Everyone can hold the ball under pressure.”
New Zealand took third place at the Cyprus Cup in March, beating Switzerland, then played Australia tight in a loss and a draw before tying Japan in June and winning the Valais Cup in September, beating young, Marta-less Brazil team and thrashing China in the final. This all comes after a quarterfinal appearance at the 2012 Olympics, New Zealand’s first knockout stage of a major tournament.
So the signs of progress are all there, but the biggest test comes this week, with two games against the world’s top-ranked team, the United States.
“It’s always hard to break down the U.S., it’s hard to play under their high pressure,” said Riley, who played with several U.S. regulars while at Stanford.
“There’s really no better way to assess where we are, where we need to be and how far we’ve come than to play the best team in the world. We’re looking to keep improving.”
Striker Amber Hearn is in top form of late and the defense continues to anchor a squad looking to prove its better than its No. 19 world ranking. Readings’ goals are ambitious – an improved showing at the 2015 World Cup and a podium appearance in 2016, among them. Come then, the Football Ferns will likely have its most veteran side ever at a major tournament, including Riley at fullback.
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