With the World Cup just three months away, the Republic of Ireland women’s national team had the opportunity to test themselves against current holders the United States in back-to-back friendlies in Austin, Texas (8 April) and St. Louis, Missouri (11 April).
The Girls in Green had been on a record nine-game unbeaten run, with their most recent outing against China in February ending in a 0-0 draw. But while the USA were the winner of both these fixtures (2-0 in Austin and 1-0 in St. Louis), the scorelines certainly didn’t tell the whole story.
Here are some things we learned from the experience.
New faces made their mark
Saturday’s game in Austin saw two debutants put in impressive performances. Sinead Farrelly, who has come out of retirement after almost eight years away from football, was a surprise addition to the Ireland squad having previously represented the USA at underage levels. The 33-year-old made a big difference in midfield during her 60 minutes on the pitch and was lauded by manager Vera Pauw for her ability to keep the ball and change her team’s style of play for the better. Fans will no doubt be excited to see more of her in the coming months.
While Farrelly brought experience, fellow newcomer Tara O’Hanlon brought youth. The 18-year-old defender plays her club football at Peamount United in the League of Ireland Women’s Premier Division and was introduced in the 86th minute for Marissa Sheva. It was a second Ireland cap for Sheva and for Manchester United defender Aoife Mannion, both of whom had made highly promising debuts against China and played really well again here. They are all in with a good chance of making the squad in Australia and New Zealand.
The importance of Courtney Brosnan
Courtney Brosnan’s international career has followed a similar trajectory to that of England’s Mary Earps. Both goalkeepers had slipped down the pecking order for their respective countries before working their way back to number one under new managers: Sarina Wiegman for Earps, Vera Pauw for Brosnan.
It’s fair to say Brosnan has been a national hero since saving Caroline Weir’s penalty in that triumphant World Cup qualification play-off against Scotland last October. The Everton keeper made several outstanding saves in both USA friendlies and was unfortunate with a couple of the goals she did concede (one was a penalty which she got a hand to). Brosnan is undoubtedly one of the stars of this Irish side and will be critical for us in the World Cup.
Ireland’s physicality didn’t go down well in the United States
The first game in particular highlighted the very different views on both sides of the Atlantic about what constitutes fair play. The USA’s Mallory Swanson was stretchered off with a knee injury following a collision with Aoife Mannion and now looks set to miss the World Cup. It was a fair challenge with a highly unfortunate outcome and resulted in abuse being directed at Mannion on social media and complaints from American fans about Ireland’s physicality, with some keen to remind their team’s opponents that this wasn’t a game of rugby. One particularly irate fan jumped into a thread on the official Ireland Football Twitter account to declare their shame at having Irish ancestry.
While I can’t claim to have much knowledge about the NWSL as I simply haven’t watched enough of it, American friends have informed me that players are often penalised for soft challenges that probably wouldn’t be classed as bookable offences in the European leagues. Not that I’m suggesting what happened to Mallory Swanson was soft, but there was certainly no malice on Aoife Mannion’s part (and let’s not forget, we’re talking about a player who has had her own share of knee injuries in recent seasons, so she knows what it’s like to spend long spells on the sidelines).
This team has serious potential
Few expected this Irish side to beat the reigning world champions — and indeed they didn’t — but at times they looked like they could have. Kyra Carusa nearly gave the visitors an equaliser in the first game, but the goal was ruled offside. She was one of several players who offered a consistent attacking threat, alongside Katie McCabe, Heather Payne, Louise Quinn, Marissa Sheva and Denise O’Sullivan (who earned her 100th cap in the first fixture and was handed the captaincy for the occasion). Yes, the finishing could have been better, but these are lessons the players will have learned and can take forward with them.
Ireland were in control for much of the second game, enjoying almost equal possession and putting the USA under pressure. An error of judgement from the otherwise brilliant Brosnan was to blame for the home side’s goal, but the fact that it was the only one speaks volumes about how solid Ireland were. So does the disappointment of the players and manager afterwards, with Pauw remarking: “This one hurts because we have done so well.”
In the end, results don’t really matter in friendlies; it’s all about preparation. Pauw and her team will know exactly what needs to be worked on ahead of the summer, and if they can improve their finishing and keep playing with the confidence they showed in America, the future looks bright.