REIMS, France — Jill Ellis, the coach of the United States women’s soccer team, kept repeating the word “feeling” over and over again late last night at the Stade Auguste-Delaune as she tried to process the meaning of her team’s 13-0 win over Thailand.
The win was important. The goal total was important, too. But at this stage of the tournament, for a team like the United States whose only ambition here is to win the whole thing, the cultivation of rhythm, confidence and general good vibes might be the most important thing of all. She wasn’t merely pleased to see her team score goals seemingly at will; she wanted as many players as possible to experience it.
“Those feelings are what can help you get through the tournament,” Ellis said.
Somewhat lost in the overall grandiosity of the win and the roiling debate about the lopsided goals total put up by an elite team against a squad of semiprofessionals, then, was the manner in which several individual players asserted themselves and quickly found their footing.
It took precisely one game, for instance, for Alex Morgan to get herself on a scintillating scoring streak, with her five goals — scoring left-footed, right-footed and with her head — displaying all the lethal components of her attacking toolbox.
And goals aside, Morgan’s comfort and skill playing and distributing with her back to the goal, as the very tip of the team’s potent attacking spear, facilitated so much of the Americans’ forward movement throughout the match.
“With the score line tonight, we have to look at the group stage as every goal counts,” Morgan said. “It was important for us to continue to go.”
Casual soccer fans may not realize how powerful a force goal differential is in the group stage at any World Cup. Goal difference — the spread between a team’s goals scored and allowed — is the first tiebreaker for placing in groups ahead of the knockout stage, so the Americans’ 13 goals were both a statement of intent and skill but also a vital insurance policy in choosing their fate in the knockouts.
But statistics are not everything.
At a pre-tournament training camp at Tottenham Hotspur’s luxurious new facility in north London last week, Morgan had joked that she had taken to calling her teammates her “22 best friends.”
It was an unserious aside, an inside joke, but it spoke to the atmosphere this group of players has been trying to cultivate. The sensation of building up, creating an ascending path of self-esteem, is something that Ellis hopes to foster and manipulate to her advantage.
The United States has the oldest squad, by average age, at the tournament. But there are still several players appearing on this stage for the first time, and Ellis, who had a few of them in her first-choice lineup, was aware of the need to get them comfortable on the World Cup stage as quickly as possible.
Take a player like Rose Lavelle, whose sublime skill in midfield Ellis has been trying to coax out on a more consistent basis. On Tuesday, Ellis encouraged Lavelle to get her creative engine going, and she did.
Lavelle dribbled at Thai players, at times winding her way straight through their defense, 5, 10, 15 yards at a time. She and forward Tobin Heath combined to make life miserable for Sunisa Srangthaisong, each of them nutmegging her on separate occasions and in general giving her the unenviable task of chasing them around.
That Lavelle also scored twice in her first World Cup match was a bonus.
“It’s really about making sure Rose is doing her thing,” Ellis said. “She is unique. She’s obviously a very skillful player, and you don’t ever want to limit that.”
After the starters had their fill, Ellis tried to spread the good feelings around.
As she prepared to send attackers Carli Lloyd and Christen Press onto the field as her first two substitutes, she told them specifically not to take their feet off the gas. She wanted more of her players to “get hot,” she said.
Lloyd responded with a goal in injury time, and Press was a menace in the team’s transitional play, using her speed and vision to ignite attack after attack.
Ellis afterward called the last goal “massive” for Lloyd, the Golden Ball winner as the best player at the 2015 World Cup, as she continues to adjust to playing a supporting role off the bench.
And she noted that young forward Mallory Pugh, who came on for a defender late in the second half to create a four-player attacking line against the fading Thais, was in tears after scoring her first goal in her first World Cup game.
“You forget these moments are massive moments for players,” Ellis said.
Now, thanks to her aggressive approach to those substitutions, Ellis has three more players on her bench who felt the euphoric rush of being involved in a World Cup goal. Who may feel they can score again every time they step on the field.
“A lot of this is about building momentum,” Ellis said. “The reality is, we also believe we’ve got more to do, no doubt. We’re going to stay humble, and we’ll go back to work.”