It had been some 11 ½ years since the US women's national team last faced Russia. And that rare unfamiliarity with an opponent brought on some angst among the Americans. But as it turned out, little had changed in all of those years.
When they last met in Uniondale, NY on Sept. 29, 2002, the USA won 5-1. On Saturday in Boca Raton, Fla. the Russians offered up even less resistance, going down 7-0.
As one of just two holdovers from that game in 2002, it was fitting that Heather O'Reilly should steal the show early on. Charging at the Russian box from her spot on the right wing, she was an incessant menace. So much so in fact that her marker was taken off in the 34th minute.
By then, O'Reilly had been involved in the first two goals. In the 29th minute, she played Carli Lloyd into space. Lloyd subsequently cut inside toward the Russian box, beat two defenders and rammed her high shot past goalkeeper Elvira Todua from just six yards out. Not three minutes later, a Kristen Mewis cross skipped off a Russian defender and fell nicely for O'Reilly, whose left-footed half-volley score was pretty.
With Russian resistance now entirely broken, Stephanie Cox fed Lloyd her second goal in the 38th minute. The central midfielder deftly twirled into the open space gaping in front of her, took a settling touch and rifled her shot into the far left corner for a magnificent goal.
Lloyd would cap her night with an assist in the 51st minute, when she found Christen Press open for the header with her cross to make it 4-0. But the train kept on churning. Within the next 14 minutes, the Americans would tally three more times.
Sydney Leroux was played through by Lauren Holiday, held off her defender in the box and beat Todua from an acute angle by sliding in a slow roller at the near post. Press reacted well to a scramble in front of goal following a corner, slotting in her second. And substitute Abby Wambach - the other holdover from the last contest with Russia - tapped in the 7-0 at the far post after Ali Krieger charged up the right and delivered a cross, an effort pushed into Wambach's path by a savvy back-heel pass from Amy Rodriguez. It would be the last goal of the afternoon, in spite of a barrage that was kept up until the final whistle.
Not long after Wambach's 7-0, Valentina Orlova had been sent off with a straight red card for bringing down Rodriguez, who was about to break through on goal. But her ejection hardly made a difference to Russia's mindset in this game. As head coach Tom Sermanni had predicted, they bunkered in from the first whistle, hoping to prey on the counter-attack.
Those breakaways, however, never happened. The USA was crisp on the ball - after a sloppier performance against Canada on Jan. 31 - and kept on pelting Russia's box from the wings. The onslaught seemed to kill off whatever aspirations of attacking the Russians ever harbored. So they settled into rote defending, pumping loose balls upfield and avoiding possession like the plague. USA goalkeeper Hope Solo made just one intervention, gratefully diving at a ball that was plainly off-target.
That didn't make the exercise an entirely useless one for the American women, however. Sermanni hopes to drag his team away from the direct style that has served them so well in the past, yielding two World Cup and four Olympic titles. And, as he had hoped, it took some quick moves through the midfield and through balls down the center of the field to break down the ten Russians compressed into their own third.
The Americans found some seams and didn't attack exclusively down the flanks. Their instincts still compel them to, but the service into the strikers was a bit more varied than it has been in the past. And looking ahead to the 2015 Women's World Cup, this is good news. In their last game, Canada successfully clogged the middle and almost got away with a draw, which was foiled only by a late Leroux score.
Still, it's best not to read too much into this result. The Americans may not have known much about this Russian side going into the game, but 90 minutes on, they had learned that they hadn't had much to fear all along.