Sydney Leroux entered Sunday in a slump. She exited the night with a legitimate case to be a starter at the World Cup.
Three weeks before the start of the tournament, Leroux scored twice to lift the United States past Mexico, 5-1 in the Americans’ penultimate sendoff game on Sunday at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif. Abby Wambach also scored twice and Lori Chalupny added another goal, all off the bench.
Leroux earned her first start since Dec. 14, 2014, and scored her first goal since Oct. 26, 2014, a 6-0 win over Costa Rica to win the CONCACAF Championship.
Leroux’s 28th minute goal came from a nearly impossible angle. It took something special to beat Mexico’s 20-year-old goalkeeper Cecilia Santiago, who made several world-class saves in the first half. . Megan Rapinoe slotted a ball in behind to Leroux, who touched the ball around Santiago and nearly dribbled it out of bounds, but sliced a shot almost from the endline into the far side netting.
Her second goal similarly featured a touch around Santiago with a finish from a more direct angle in the 61st minute. With Alex Morgan still out due to a nagging bone bruise her left knee, U.S. coach Jill Ellis started Leroux and Christen Press up top.
[WATCH: Heath’s ridiculous snake move fakes out defender, sets up goal]
Santiago kept Mexico in the game in the first half, which paid off before halftime when Ariana Calderon scored the equalizer. Bianca Sierra sent in a teasing ball on a free kick that found an unmarked Calderon, whose header looped over the stranded Hope Solo and into the net. Solo came off her line to punch the ball but did not make contact.
That Calderon’s tally was an equalizer is a credit to Mexico’s defense. In the 14th minute, Press’ goal-bound header was cleared off the line by Alina Garciamendez. The ball fell to the feet of Rapinoe, who blasted a shot off of Santiago’s face. After the ball pin-balled some more, Rapinoe’s shot was again denied by Santiago from point-blank range.
No holds barred! Mexico goalkeeper Santiago keeps score level by saving shot with her face. #USAvMEX #USWNT http://t.co/XFshk2EKCc
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) May 18, 2015
Rapinoe was also on the wrong end of the same story in the 43rd minute. Santiago batted down a hard shot from Lauren Holiday and Rapinoe was there for the rebound, but Santiago stuffed the midfielder from six yards out.
Carli Lloyd also hit the crossbar in the 32nd minute when she headed a cross from Morgan Brian.
The second half was a different story, however. Chalupny, having just entered the match, scored 30 seconds after the kickoff to break the deadlock. Wambach soon followed, burying a left-footed penalty kick and knocking in a header at the back post after Tobin Heath shook off Mexico defender Bianca Sierra.
Wambach’s two goals give her 24 for her career against Mexico, twice as many as she has against any other team. She has 182 international goals, more than any man or woman in history.
#USWNT Starting XI: Solo; Krieger, Johnston, Sauerbrunn, Klingenberg; Brian, Holiday, Lloyd, Rapinoe; Leroux, Press pic.twitter.com/87DIZK7DBr
— U.S. Soccer WNT (@ussoccer_wnt) May 18, 2015
U.S. steps up energy level
Last week’s win over Ireland featured a lethargic and wasteful first half for the United States. The finishing still wasn’t there in the opening 45 minutes on Sunday — mainly due to Santiago’s heroics — but the U.S. showed more energy and intensity than it has in any other match thus far this year. The high pressure helped the Americans dictate the game instead of being played conceding the ball like they did against France in their first meeting of the year with Les Bleues. Of course, there’s a big difference between France and Mexico. If the U.S. women can build upon what it did against Mexico and successfully apply it against better teams, they will find success.
Leroux impresses even beyond goals
There’s no getting around Sydney Leroux’s recent dip in form, but Sunday’s performance made that a thing of the past. Leroux scored twice, but even more importantly made smart decisions. She held the ball up and looked for teammates when she was outnumbered in the attack. In previous months, Leroux would have tried to go to goal alone. A maturity in decision-making combined with a return to form gives Ellis another viable option up front, especially with Morgan’s injury looking like it could keep her out for the entire month of May.
Much-improved Mexico is getting there
Mexico was nothing short of awful at World Cup qualifying in October. El Tri narrowly qualified for the World Cup with an extra-time win over Trinidad and Tobago in the third-place match. But spring has brought rebirth for Mexico, which impressively took third place at the Cyprus Cup in March. Sunday’s 5-1 scoreline might not look great, but there clear strides made in tactical discipline and fitness levels. It was the first time Mexico scored on the U.S. since November 2010. Now Mexico needs to put together a 90-minute performance. El Tri will face two similar games to this in the group stage of the World Cup when they play France and England.
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