Matildas reinforcing their place in top echelon of contenders for 2019 World Cup

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- The Australian women's national team has been a valiant loser on the world stage before, their courage applauded even as they departed major tournaments without medals to show for it.

So perhaps this was its own kind of progress, to find Australia unbeaten and unnoticed after the final stop of the Tournament of Nations. Weary winners against Japan in the last of their three games in three cities over eight days, the distance travelled roughly equivalent to Perth to Melbourne and back to Adelaide, the Matildas ceded the trophy to the United States on goal differential. They then slipped out of Toyota Park while the host celebrated on stage.

Forced to make two early substitutions against Japan due to fatigue, Australia lacked the dynamism that they showed in an opening win against Brazil and the stubbornness of purpose they relied on in a draw against the Americans.

"We didn't keep the ball real well in the first half," coach Alen Stajcic lamented. "And we couldn't really penetrate with good possession or with counter attack, which was a bit disappointing."

Yet thanks to a well-placed Alanna Kennedy free kick and a bit of individual brilliance from Sam Kerr in the closing minutes, the effort still produced a 2-0 win against the rival that denied them the Asian Cup title earlier this year. Not bad if they were as weary as Stajcic made it sound.

On the heels of memorable World Cup and Olympic exits, Australia made a splash by winning all three of their games in the inaugural Tournament of Nations in 2017. They beat the U.S. for the first time and closed with a flourish in a 6-1 win against Brazil. That run showed Australia at their best and charmed the soccer public at home and abroad.

If there was less charm and more sweat this time, that may be no less useful in the long run.

At their best, Australia is good enough to beat anyone. At their weariest, they will need to be resilient enough to live to play another day. Surviving seven games in a World Cup requires both.

"I don't think we're the favourite at all," Stajcic cautioned of next year's World Cup after the win against Japan. "I think we're in the top echelon, but I don't think we're the favourite. I think the USA is the favourite. The way they played against us the other day suggests that they're the favourites going in. And France as the home team are obviously one of the favourites as well. And then, obviously, you can't look past Germany in men's or women's football. They're the top three for a reason."

Yet he couldn't bring himself to take on the underdog role, citing the Croatian men as a model.

"Smaller countries can sometimes get through," he continued, "If they have that bit of momentum and a bit luck of the draw."

And in Australia's case, if they keep their players on the field. The time in the United States this summer reinforced the realities that Australia is both among the aforementioned top echelon of contenders and has a smaller margin of error than any of the four or five teams with which they share that standing.

The Matildas played the Tournament of Nations without defender Steph Catley, absent for personal reasons. They played with Caitlin Foord still finding her footing as a substitute after six months out with an injury. They played the finale without Tameka Butt, who wasn't among the substitutes after starting the first two games and scoring a goal against Brazil. And as a last challenge, Lisa De Vanna and Clare Polkinghorne, two of only three out-field players born in the 1980s, came off after less than half an hour against Japan.

Any team is rarely lucky enough to have a perfect bill of health, but compared to the U.S. team that was without potential World Cup starters Kelley O'Hara and Mallory Pugh and managing its own injury returns from Tobin Heath, Rose Lavelle, Sam Mewis and Becky Sauerbrunn, the Australians looked stretched by the time it came to chasing down Japan's possession in the finale.

"We're probably not like the American squad where we've got 30 or 40 players to choose from," Stajcic said during the tournament. "We've probably got a good pool of 20 to 25. And that means the ones that we have, we really have to look after and make sure they can do the job come the big games."

To that end, arguably the best development of the entire tournament for Australia was the play of Ellie Carpenter. With the team down a defender in Catley, the 18-year-old Carpenter played 270 minutes with barely a bobble - she had enough energy left to be arguably the best player on the field for long stretches of the game against Japan. The inclusion of teenager Mary Fowler and Amy Sayer in the roster may have had more to do with the 2020 Olympics or 2023 World Cup that Australia hopes to host, but Carpenter played like a star on the rise for 2019.

While other world powers watch their youth pools compete in the ongoing Under-20 Women's World Cup, Australia will hope the likes of 19-year-old Alex Chidiac, or perhaps even Fowler or Sayer, follow Carpenter's lead in expanding the senior depth chart by even one or two players.

A handful of minutes off the bench, or a spot start in a group stage game, could make all the difference in Australia having its legs deep into next summer's World Cup.

With World Cup qualification already achieved, Stajcic said the team is just waiting on paperwork to finalize a pair of friendlies in Europe in October and two more at home before the end of the year. It all makes for a delicate balance for both coach and players over the next 10 months, staying sharp without overtaxing a core of players who in many cases have club responsibilities in more than one country.

It bears mentioning that Australia was seconds away from duplicating its Tournament of Nations success of a year ago. Had it kept American Lindsey Horan from heading home the tying goal in the closing minutes of that game, it would have another clean sweep against opponents that claimed five of the past six places in World Cup finals.

Yet there was far more difference between 2017 and 2018 than one set piece. The weariness walking off the field after beating Japan said it all.

"We came off a bit of a high from the year last year and got a lot of media attention back home," Stajcic said. "And a lot of the spotlight was on the players for the first time - really ever that the mainstream media back in Australia had put the spotlight on our team. That sort of did build up a little bit of pressure, and we had to deal with that all year this year.

"We've had a few ups and downs this year, in the Asian Cup and the Algarve Cup. It was good to see the players show a little bit of resilience in this tournament.

He paused for half a beat, and then added a caveat.

"It probably wasn't our best football."

It can't always be. Not if you want to stick around long enough to win a World Cup.