HARRISON, N.J. — Pity the U.S. opponents.
Imagine their sigh of relief, watching Alex Morgan head for the sidelines after trying to corral her for 60-plus minutes, only to realize the player coming in is Carli Lloyd. Or feeling as if you’ll finally get a break from trying to chase down Crystal Dunn, and seeing Mallory Pugh waiting to take her place. Or being grateful to watch Tobin Heath exit — until Christen Press sprints onto the field.
“That’s not fun, that’s for sure,” defender Kelley O’Hara said last week, a wicked grin on her face. “That’s one of the best parts about this team. You know the other teams are like, `OK, they’re bringing on a sub,’ and then they look over at who’s subbing in and they’re just like, ‘Crap.’
“People that are subbing into games are game changers, just as good as some of the starters potentially.”
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Teams only get three substitutes in the World Cup, which begins June 7 in France. But few, if any, countries will bring as much quality off the bench as the Americans will in their quest for a fourth title. The U.S. begins play against Thailand on June 11 in Reims, France.
That depth was on full display Sunday, when the Americans wrapped up their sendoff tour with a 3-0 victory over Mexico. The Americans had peppered Mexico goalkeeper Cecilia Santiago relentlessly in the first half, but only had Heath’s 11th-minute goal to show for it.
Jill Ellis did her best imitation of a hockey coach at halftime, making six substitutions, and the impact was immediately apparent. Lloyd, Pugh and Press shredded Mexico’s weary back line every time the United States had the ball, and it eventually proved too much for the young and overworked El Tri team.
In the 76th, Lloyd dribbled her way up the left side, sidestepping a Mexico defender before sending a pass to the front of the goal, where both Pugh and O’Hara were waiting. Pugh got control of the ball and, with the lightest of touches, scored.
In the 88th, Press brought down a pass from Julie Ertz just outside the 18-yard box, juked a Mexico defender and then rocketed a left-footed shot into the back of the net.
“The depth, as far as the technical ability, is probably the strongest we’ve had,” Lloyd said.
Considering this is Lloyd’s fourth World Cup, and the 2015 squad won the whole thing while the 2011 edition reached the finals, that’s saying something.
Now, you can make the argument that maybe one of those subs should be starting — and Lloyd will when asked. But that misses the point. The players who will come off the U.S. bench would be starting for any other team, and that means there is no drop-off whatsoever when they enter the game.
Other teams might be able to say that about one, maybe two, of their subs. But all three? No matter the position being subbed? Even past U.S. teams couldn’t have said that.
“We have two starting 11s, honestly,” Morgan said.
And it’s not just the numbers.
At one point in the first half, Dunn, who starts at left back, was up with the forwards. Early in the second half, Ellis had Heath playing at left back while Ertz, who now plays in the midfield, dropped into her old spot on the backline.
That ability to mix and match will be exhausting for opponents, who won’t be able to predict who or what they’ll be seeing from the United States.
Now, this doesn’t mean the streets of Manhattan should be cleared for the ticker-tape parade. The Americans’ struggles to finish, particularly early, have been notable during this sendoff series. While the competition hasn’t been good enough for that to be an issue, that won’t be the case the deeper the United States goes in France.
Especially given that the United States could see either France or Germany in the quarterfinals.
But the White Walker-like depth is a difference-maker that, rightly, gives Ellis and the Americans a great deal of confidence as they head to France.
“There was a lot left on the table,” Ellis acknowledged of the missed chances in the first half. “But this group creates a lot, and they’re very potent. And in time, we break teams down.”
Substitute or starter. For the Americans, it will be hard to tell the difference.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.