LONDON, ENGLAND -- The USWNT has a kind of mythical quality abroad; names like Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly, Brandi Chastain and Joy Fawcett belong as much to the global folklore of the women's game as to U.S. soccer history. They are winners: the U.S. has lifted two World Cups, three Olympic golds, six CONCACAF Gold Cups and countless smaller honors; ahead of last weekend's meeting with England, it had gone unbeaten in 52 friendlies since 2004.
England's previous win over the U.S. came even further back, in the 1980s, before half the crowd at The Matchroom Stadium was born. All the previous meetings had come on foreign soil but finally England's supporters would see
There had been a hint that the USWNT might be waning when it lost to Mexico (for the first time in 26 matches) in World Cup qualifying last year, and was forced through a third-place match with Costa Rica and a two-legged playoff with Italy to reach this summer's tournament in Germany. But having done so with relative ease, and won six straight matches since January, that polished sheen seemed restored, at least from afar.
The friendly between England and the U.S. was set up to give both teams an idea of where they are in the run-up to the World Cup, but both probably anticipated that it would be of greater use to England manager Hope Powell than to Pia Sundhage. England has made huge strides in the last five years but a brutal defeat to Germany in the final of the 2009 European Championship was a reminder of the distances it has had to travel.
"I wanted this fixture as a benchmark to see how far we'd progressed," said Powell, who has seen her side win 13 of 20 matches since losing 6-2 to Germany, but endure successive Cyprus Cup defeats to Canada and a shock 2-0 reverse against Scotland. "It was really important to me that we play America. The last time I was a player, the last time we went to America, the  World Cup ... we've lost, we've lost, we've lost."
Now the win, and if the result wasn't a big enough jolt in the course of England vs. USA head-to-heads, the authority with which England dictated the first half and the resolve with which it saw off Sundhage's improved side in the second surely are. England didn't just take the U.S. by surprise; it played its own game to good effect and survived the familiar late pressure (to which it has previously relented) without any great drama. Things went to plan. This is progress.
"Everybody played a part," Powell said. "The performance was very professional; we approached it in the way that we wanted to. We worked on certain things during the week, and the players implemented that. If players do their job and take responsibility, then you have got half a chance of getting something out of a game. There were some really big performances here.
"[The U.S.] could have scored, certainly in the second half; it wasn't an easy victory. The most important thing is that we proved we can compete -- we might not always get the result we want, but we competed very well and came out on top on this occasion."
The match highlighted one of the real strengths of Powell's management: picking players in form. In 2009, she dropped Rachel Yankey, one of England's most prolific players, for the European Championship finals. Having started every game in Finland, Sue Smith was left on the bench against Germany in the final. Yankey had had a relatively poor domestic season and Smith, despite her relentless enthusiasm, had shown a lack of pace that would have made her easy for the Germans to deal with; Powell acted.
The manager has selected numerous new faces between now and when the U.S. beat England 3-0 in China, four years ago. Five of the squad last weekend were not even on the England roster versus Germany two years back; a further three participated at Euro 2009 largely as substitutes. Goalkeeper Karen Bardsley (11 caps) and forwards Ellen White (12 caps) and Jess Clarke (23 caps) started last week while Rachel Brown (72 caps), Eni Aluko (54 caps) and Karen Carney (58 caps) took to the bench.
Even as the U.S. started to turn the screw in the last half an hour, Powell replaced central defender and captain Faye White (86 caps) with Sophie Bradley (three caps), when either of Anita Asante or Lindsay Johnson (62 caps between them and both more experienced at club level), might have filled the position.
"There's tough competition for the more senior players, so you're looking over your shoulder," said Fara Williams. "Every game you play for England now you've got to prove yourself and have a good game; if you don't then Hope's proved that she's bringing the kids through and not taking any prisoners. Now we've got loads of players that are capable of starting."
Williams is a veteran of 92 caps and unlikely to find her place in the team under threat after a Player of the Match performance that did a lot to dictate the complexion of U.S. fans' feelings after the game. While she and Jill Scott controlled the midfield for large parts of the match, Carli Lloyd and Shannon Boxx (whose partnership in a flat midfield four looks extremely suspect) failed to get a foothold and found themselves bypassed by long balls vaguely searching for Abby Wambach.
The duo were by no means solely culpable for the team's shortcomings on the night, but their struggle highlights a big difference between these sides: while Powell names her best team, Sundhage has a habit of naming her best players. England's 4-2-1-3 formation -- which frequently looked more like 2-2-5 in the first half -- was designed to get the best out of the team in this fixture. Sundhage is taking criticism for picking her favored formation, her favored players, and pushing them together into a poor fit, irrespective of opposition.
Using Amy Lepeilbet, a magnificent central defender, at left back for 70 minutes certainly whiffed of that, and it would have been interesting to see Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath and Lauren Cheney given a little longer to get into the game together -- England certainly tired in the final 20 minutes and Morgan might have taken advantage had she been sharper.
Powell is a realist -- though she was evidently delighted to have beaten the world No1 team, she repeatedly told reporters: "We mustn't get ahead of ourselves." She would rather the world didn't pay too much attention; she knows that England must peak at the right time, and get this kind of result in tournament soccer, as the U.S. does so reliably. Still, that Sundhage, not Powell, should end the game talking about "taking positives" is a turn up for a the books.