Australia stung by another 'moral victory,' but the Matildas' future is bright

EAST HARTFORD, Conn. -- After a 1-1 stalemate kept the teams level atop the Tournament of Nations table, it was Australia that sounded disappointed that it didn't come away with more. And it was the United States that was thrilled to play well against a measuring stick like the Matildas.

How the world turns.

Leading for more than an hour courtesy of a Chloe Logarzo goal set up by Lisa De Vanna's 50-yard sprint, Australia was on the verge of beating the United States for the second time in a little more than 12 months -- and the second time ever. It instead settled for its third draw in 29 all-time meetings after American Lindsey Horan's header in the 90th minute leveled things.

"We're happy with the effort," Matildas coach Alen Stajcic said. "But obviously, we're very disappointed with the result, not to have won that game."

It was another near-miss for Australia, albeit far less significant than a draw with Germany in the group stage of the 2016 Olympics, a shootout exit against Brazil in that same tournament or a one-goal loss to eventual finalist Japan in the 2015 World Cup quarterfinals.

For that reason, it is risky to paint it as any kind of moral victory, even if a draw on the road against the United States is a result that the rest of the globe's elite would usually consider a day well spent. This team is done with moral victories in big games. It is ready for the victories that count.

Still, from its oldest starter to its youngest, it was clear to see on Sunday how Australia has become a team that aspires to those heights. Why it's a team that can legitimately feel gutted to come away from a road game against the defending World Cup champions with only a point.

It's also why the Americans were universally pleased with their performance. They found an opponent so true to its blueprint, and so cohesive that it forced the hosts to lift their game.

"They're one of the few teams that can really match us physically, in terms of strength and the style that they play," U.S. forward Megan Rapinoe said.

"They can get up and down the field."

Even those that are nearing their 34th birthday.

The goal was one to remember, as much for De Vanna's swashbuckling run as Logarzo's precise finish. While the game was physical from the outset, Australia pinning the U.S. in its own end in the opening minutes, the United States began to build possession and push the game deeper into the Australian end as the first half wore on.

Still, any thought that the visitors might surrender their will along with the real estate evaporated when De Vanna won a ball in her own half, cut back to beat a challenge from American defensive standout Becky Sauerbrunn and took off on a run. As hungry as she might have been for a goal, she still had the composure to pull a final U.S. defender out of position and slip a pass to Logarzo for the finish.

If Australia's all-time leading scorer is now, in some respect, a role player, it was an important role Sunday and one that still showed off the speed that haunts the dreams of defenders.

"Lisa's obviously getting on," Stajcic said. "She can only play limited time at the moment, but for me, that was probably one of the best games she's played in our team in the last 12 months.

"If she can have that kind of impact on our team in the next 12 months, 24 months," it will be a big asset.

The goal she engineered held up for so long and under such pressure because the Matildas' defense didn't splinter, an effort aided by one player at the other end of the age spectrum.

While far from the most inexperienced player on Australia's roster, 18-year-old Ellie Carpenter was the team's youngest starter and the youngest player on the field for either team. And after squaring off against Marta a few days earlier, she spent much of her night in proximity to Rapinoe.

The American may be playing the best soccer of her long and already illustrious career, but Carpenter held her own.

"She's only going to get better," Stajcic said. "Who knows how good she's going to be by 22 or 23? To be marking probably two of the best wingers in the history of the game, I think, she's really shown that she can compete.

"Obviously Rapinoe was still creating and produced a lot of chances for the U.S., but when you consider the experience difference between the two, I thought she did a really good job."

One of the few times she got away from Rapinoe she paid the price by taking a clearance from Crystal Dunn square in the face in the first half. She stayed on the turf for a few minutes but was back in the game almost immediately. Scarcely a minute later, she defused an American chance by staying alert and accelerating to intercept a cross before it reached Rapinoe in open space.

With more caps than years, Carpenter is yet one more example of Australia's blueprint. She is already well immersed in the national team, will be something close to a seasoned pro by the time the World Cup and Olympics roll around. And on nights like Sunday, as well as that against Brazil, are the reason why. Few countries are better at incorporating youth.

"We don't get to interact enough as a country or abroad, which is tough for our young players," Stajcic said. "They don't get the exposure that players in Europe would get -- or even in America.

"We're always looking to bring in players to give them a taste of what real elite football is like and know what standards they have to achieve to be successful at this level."

They will lament the possession they ceded against the U.S. and the calls from the referee they felt didn't go their way. But the Matildas won't worry about the blueprint.

Both teams had reason to be pleased with what they showed on Sunday, the U.S. for its possession and Australia for its resilience. But only one of them was content with the draw.

That alone speaks volumes about Australia.