Number 13 proved lucky for the US as it beat China 3-1 for its first outright win in its 13th match of the FIH Pro League.
At the start of this fixture China (World Ranking:10) and USA (WR:12) were sitting in eighth and ninth place respectively in the FIH Pro League. Whatever the result in this match, USA were not going to overturn that positioning as China arrived in Spooky Nook with three wins to its credit. USA’s only points ahead of this match had come from three drawn games (with one bonus point for a shoot-out win).
USA were in desperate need of a winning performance against China. Speaking ahead of the match, USA Head Coach Janneke Schopman said she was looking for a more clinical finish from her players. “We are looking to start strong and keep pressure on the China side. It is never fun to lose so we are looking to work hard for a win and build on the energy that is within the team,” she said.
Her team answered the call with three goals and a defensive performance that saw them keep 16 out of 17 China penalty corners from entering the goal.
USA nearly opened their account within the first three minutes of the game when captain Kat Sharkey fired a reverse stick shot from the top of the ‘D’. Her rasping shot struck the post but it served as early warning as to the home team’s intentions.
A noticeable change in the China team in the past two seasons has been a greater willingness to attack and Sun Xiao demonstrated this early in the match with a strong run into the USA circle. The result was the first penalty corner of the match but Ou Zixia was unable to convert the strike.
Although China might be playing with a more attacking structure, they never neglect their defending responsibilities and so it showed when Alyssa Parker tried to find a way into the China circle following a quick break. Seven China players were instantly back and defending and so the quarter finished goalless.
In a mirror image of the start to the first quarter, it was Sharkey who nearly scored the opening goal. The forward weaved her way into the circle but her shot was dealt with by Ye Jiao in the China goal. As in the first half, China responded quickly and won a penalty corner. Gu Bingfeng attempted her trademark drag flick but the shot was chased down by the USA defence.
Two further penalty corners saw more China variations but the first runner, Laura Hurff, was alert to the danger and closed things down, albeit taking a sharp knock to her knee in the process.
The first goal went to USA. Again, the ever-busy Sharkey was at the heart of the action, winning a penalty corner, then taking the shot that created an opportunity for Anna Dessoye to poke home the rebound to give her team the lead.
China came back strongly with some great passing moves that really stretched the hard-working USA team. They were rewarded with yet another penalty corner. Again Gu Bingfeng was the target but USA had done their homework and the variation was effectively blocked by the disciplined defence, marshalled by Player of the Match Kelsey Bing, who was enjoying a good game in the USA goal.
USA’s lead was doubled towards the end of the second quarter. On this occasion, Dessoye was the provider. Her bouncing ball into the circle evaded the defender and Lauren Moyer was on hand to tip the ball craftily over Ye Jiao’s shoulder.
Schopman was pleased with her team’s performance at the half-way mark: “We are playing well in the centre and working very hard all over the pitch. China are playing well but I like the way our team is going wide and round the China pack. I want our press to stay as it is and keep China out wide.”
China started the second half with some fast switches of play and a higher press but USA were playing with the confidence a two goal lead can provide. If China showed a glimpse of the ball, the nearest USA athlete would be on hand to punish the mistake.
Song Xiaoming showed deft skills to dance her way through the USA defence. Her attack was followed seconds later by Yong Jing, who went one better, showing great 3D skills to carry the ball into the circle but, beautiful to watch as this passage of play was, there was still no outcome for the higher-ranked team.
Erin Matson nearly added to the score but her direct route to goal was halted with a great save by Ye Jiao. Seconds later, Linnea Gonzales made no mistake when her crisp penalty corner strike gave USA their first three-goal haul in the Pro League.
China’s tenth penalty corner saw Bing pull off another great save. Gu Bingfeng’s shot was low and strong but the goalkeeper was lightening fast to the ball and cleared to safety.
The final quarter saw China pushing their press even higher up the field of play. At one point only the ‘keeper and He Jiangxin were in the China half of the pitch as the Asian team sought a goal and a way back into the game.
China finally made a penalty corner count when captain Peng Yang threw her team a lifeline and slotted home to make it 3-1.
With seven minutes left on the clock, USA had to fight their nerves and remain calm as China wound up the pressure. With three minutes to go this pressure became even greater as China Head Coach Huang Yongsheng removed the goalkeeper so his team had 11 outfield players.
USA weathered the intense China attack and there was jubilation as the team celebrated their first FIH Pro League win.
Player of the Match, Kelsey Bing said: “It feels great to have won because we have been working so hard all season.”
On the 13 penalty corner saves she made during the match, Bing was modesty itself as she said: “I was just doing my role and the guys were doing their role. I wasn’t really thinking about it,
“Now we will look to continue on this road and get some more wins under our belt.”