Seven months after the U.S. national team last played a meaningful match, coach Jill Ellis returned to competitive play with a tried and tested lineup.
For all of the experimentation and turnover that has defined the Americans in recent months, nine of the 11 players who started the Women's World Cup final were on the field Wednesday in Frisco, Texas, for the start of Olympic qualifying.
While established star Alex Morgan's two goals — including a stunning 12-second opener — grabbed the headlines, it was the pair of newcomers who left the biggest impression.
Here are three takeaways from the U.S. team's 5-0 thrashing of Costa Rica:
CRYSTAL DUNN LOOKS READY FOR PRIME TIME
One of just two cuts for the World Cup from the 25-player roster the U.S. carried last spring, Dunn responded to that snub with a remarkable blend of on-the-field dominance and off-the-field poise. Scoring a league-leading 15 goals on her way to NWSL MVP honors, Dunn earned a recall — and promptly carried that fine form to the national team by netting four times in seven caps this past fall.
The 23-year-old certainly looked like she belonged Wednesday, drawing a ninth-minute penalty kick that Carli Lloyd coolly converted before getting her own name on the score sheet with a scrappy strike in the 15th minute. Dunn caused plenty of problems with her pace and precision on the dribble from a wide midfield role, and combined well with right back Ali Krieger (her Washington Spirit teammate).
While Dunn has been at home as a winger for the U.S., she has extensive experience at fullback for club and country. It's also worth mentioning she thrived as a lone striker and occasionally played central midfield for Washington last season. If healthy, she's a lock for Rio — where 18-player rosters place a premium on versatility.
SO DOES LINDSEY HORAN
Although Dunn is a natural replacement for Megan Rapinoe while the winger recovers from a torn ACL, few would have pegged Lindsey Horan as the heir apparent to Lauren Holiday in the middle. But just as the now-retired Holiday transitioned from forward to box-to-box midfielder, Horan appears perfectly comfortable making the same leap.
Horan used her first touch to put her stamp on the game Wednesday, pinging a 50-yard ball that Lloyd nodded into the path of Morgan for the Americans' opener. Putting her strength and 5-foot-9 frame to good use, the 21-year-old roamed into the opposing box with regularity to offer an extra target — winning the header that led to Dunn's strike.
Plenty of players have gotten looks in defensive or box-to-box midfield roles in recent months — including Kristie Mewis, Becky Sauerbrunn, Tobin Heath and Meghan Klingenberg — but that starting slot next to Morgan Brian is Horan's to lose.
IS THIS ALEX MORGAN'S YEAR?
The up-and-comers, of course, weren't the only players to shine Wednesday. With what U.S. Soccer says is "believed" to be the fastest goal in the national team's history, Morgan landed herself a spot on highlight reels for years to come — and added a headed strike in the 62nd minute for good measure.
Limited by injuries in recent years, Morgan hasn't come close to replicating that prolific 2012, when she racked up 28 goals and 21 assists en route to the FIFA World Player of the Year shortlist. Yet even a hobbled Morgan was enough to lead the line for last summer's World Cup-winning squad, and her ability to create danger behind the back line was on full display against Costa Rica.
With the 26-year-old looking sharp and fully recovered from post-World Cup knee surgery, this could be the year that Morgan consistently returns to "elite" status. For U.S. fans, that might be the most welcome development of all.
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