While the Columbus Crew was on the road facing the Philadelphia Union, the United States Women’s National Team played hosts at Lower.com Field. After a top Asian side backed out of the matchup in Columbus, Uzbekistan filled the competitive void. In a match that was sometimes sunny, sometimes snowing and cold throughout, the United States earned a 9-1 win, in a match filled with firsts.
Initially, the game defied what supporters expected on the competitive side as Uzbekistan didn’t park in the team’s defensive penalty area. Instead, the Asian side pressed the United States and, for the first 25 minutes, made defensive stops and went on multiple runs into the offensive half of the field.
“We started off a little bit slow,” said winger Sophia Smith. “We were not connecting our passes and doing the simple things. So I think how we start is super important. And then just continuing that for 90 minutes plus.”
Once the U.S. did start scoring goals, it didn’t stop. In the 26th minute, midfielder Andi Sullivan got the Americans started with a headed goal off a corner. The White Stripes' “Seven Nation Army,” playing through the in-stadium speakers after the goal, didn’t have time to finish before the U.S. added a second. This time from winger Mallory Pugh.
A tackle by midfielder Rose Lavelle off the restart of play got back to the Cincinnati native, who passed to Pugh surging towards the left side of the penalty area. Pugh got the ball over goalkeeper Laylo Tilovova to go up 2-0.
The United States then opened the floodgates, adding one more before halftime and another six in the second half. Smith ended the evening with her first hat trick after she came into the match with one international goal in 13 caps. Pugh, who Smith called the “player of the match,” added three assists to her 26th minute goal.
“First, I’m very happy with how Mal is trending and how she has been with this team,” said head coach Vlad Andonovski. “Slowly but surely, she’s becoming this leader on the field. She’s been in all kinds of situations, so with the group like Soph and (Catarina Macario) and (Ashley Sanchez), (Emily Fox), Mal is one of those experienced players and she’s taking that role very well.”
These recent matches for the Americans have been about youth. Experienced players like forwards Alex Morgan and Christen Press weren’t a part of this camp and are likely looking at their last World Cup cycles. Pugh, at the age of 23, is part of bringing up the next generation of players, a group that reached milestones in Columbus on Saturday.
In the 64th minute, halftime substitute Jaelin Howell scored her first international goal. Off of a volley, the Racing Louisville midfielder lobbed a shot over the head of Tilovova. Howell responded by turning around and running towards midfield with a huge smile on her face. The two-time Hermann Trophy winner for best player in college soccer scored the goal in her fifth senior cap.
“I was just trying to put it on frame,” said Howell going through the moment post-match. “I’ve always pictured that moment but I didn’t realize it was going to be that special. The team made it special, the atmosphere made it special. It’s just a dream come true.”
Joining Howell in the first senior goal club was Washington Spirit midfielder Ashley Sanchez, but before that could happen, Uzbekistan shocked the home crowd in the 70th minute.
Forward Aziza Norboeva scored the first goal against the U.S. on American soil in over two years. The last came on March 11, 2020, in a 3-1 win against Japan in the SheBelieves Cup.
Off a corner kick, the ball floated above an attempted header, which drew the attention of the American defenders. Norboeva was standing on the end of the corner and reacted by throwing up her left foot and making contact with the ball that shot past goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher.
Andonovski and the United States will look at that goal thoroughly to see where they can improve. At the National Team level, any goal is looked at with scrutiny, even when the home side scores nine. With World Cup qualifying incoming this summer, the national team leaves no stone unturned.
Sanchez’s first senior goal was the icing on the cake. In the 90th minute, Pugh led the United States down the field with a pass to Sanchez. The midfielder dribbled to her right, by two Uzbekistan defenders and shot into the bottom right corner of the net. Like Howell, it was the culmination of a lifelong dream that started on a sour note.
“I had two pretty bad turnovers right before that, so I was like ‘I really need to get a goal right now,’” said Sanchez. “I’ve obviously dreamed about that since I was little, so that was amazing.”
What made the night more special was the venue itself. While Ohioan Lavelle admitted that she’s usually the only one excited about matches announced in the Buckeye State, her coach and the rest of her teammates were blown away by Lower.com Field.
“First, I have to say that the stadium is world class,” said Andonovski. “One of the best that we’ve ever been at or play played a game at.”
This is high praise from a World Cup-winning coach. And it didn’t stop there
As each player came up for media availability, each one talked about the quality of the new stadium built in 2021. Not just the stadium, but the cold crowd that filled it.
Of the Ohioans on the roster, only Lavelle saw time on the field Saturday. Goalkeeper Aubrey Kingsbury, a Cincinnati native like Lavelle, didn’t get the start or come on as a substitute. Naeher played all 90 minutes after recovering from a hyperextension and bone contusion suffered in the United States’ Olympic semifinal against Canada last year.
The U.S. has one more match against Uzbekistan on Tuesday in Chester, Pennsylvania. Before the Red, White and Blue could leave Columbus, an important question was posed to Lavelle, who’s played at both FC Cincinnati’s TQL Stadium and now the Crew’s Lower.com Field. Who has the best stadium in Ohio?
“Man, I can’t answer because I think you guys know the answer,” said a laughing Lavelle. “I’m not in the right place to answer.”