Football Ferns Stun USA Late To Earn Rare Draw

The Football Ferns stunned a 15,319-strong crowd at the Columbus Crew Stadium on 30 October by scoring a late equaliser to earn a 1-1 draw with Team USA in the teams' second encounter on the US Centenary Tour programme.

Three days after copping a 4-1 defeat from the reigning Olympic champions, the pride of New Zealand backed up well, and fully deserved to share the spoils with the world's number one-ranked team, the closest New Zealand has ever come to emulating their famous 1-0 victory over the Americans in December 1987.

On the ten occasions the Football Ferns have played the game's standard-bearers since, they've ended up on the wrong end of the scoreline, which has occasionally been heavy.

Not this time.

Granted, they rode their luck in this clash, but they've been long overdue a slice of same against the USA, who enjoyed the lion's share of possession throughout proceedings.

That the Football Ferns weren't going to be easy pickings for Team USA was evident as early as the third minute, when Katie Hoyle - a terrific display - muscled Lauren Holiday off the ball in the penalty area, after the midfielder had gathered in a Heather O'Reilly throw-in.

Erin Nayler assisted Hoyle in snuffing out this threat, and was wise to Megan Rapinoe's cheeky thirty-five yard chipped effort five minutes later, before producing her finest save in the tenth minute. From the penalty spot.
Holiday's ninth minute cross was cut out by Ria Percival, who had the misfortune to see the bouncing ball strike her outstretched arm inside the penalty area. Intent? Never in a million years. But referee Sabina Charles-Kirton deemed that Percival had gained an advantage from the situation, however unintentional, and instantly pointed to the spot.

Step forward Abby Wambach, the most prolific markswoman in the history of international women's football, with 162 goals to her name. If you'd bet your house on this being her 163rd, one hopes you've got a tent in which to shelter!

For that, you have Nayler to thank, the 'keeper's homework paying dividends big-time as she plunged to her right to batter away Wambach's twelve yard effort, a denial which stunned the natives in a country where the host nation hasn't been beaten for nine years.

As the Americans reeled, Abby Erceg pinged a ball forward for Hannah Wilkinson to chase - she ran her socks off for the cause throughout the evening. Her early volley was grabbed by Hope Solo on this occasion, the first of a few occasions in which the charismatic custodian was to feature in this encounter.

The next came in the nineteenth minute. Hoyle picked out Wilkinson's run down the right, and from the by-line she pulled the ball back behind Sarah Gregorius. The ball was cleared to Annalie Longo, who cheekily nutmegged the covering figure of Holiday  before darting to the by-line and attempting to pick out Gregorius' run to the near post.

Solo grabbed the cross off her head, and promptly sparked a USA counter-attack which culminated in Rebekah Stott - another peerless display - heading Wambach's steepling cross narrowly past her own goal while under pressure.
Stott turned provider in the 22nd minute, releasing the generally quietly-performed Amber Hearn through the inside-right channel. Solo was wise to her lobbed cross on the stretch, intended for Gregorius, while the full-of running strike wasn't too far away from meeting Hearn's low driven cross on the run on the half-hour, after Stott had sent New Zealand's most prolific markswoman rampaging forth once more.

In between times, the USA went desperately close to breaking the deadlock, Kristie Mewis' cross inviting Wambach to direct a looping header goalwards. The crossbar came to New Zealand's aid, while she was narrowly astray with another header four minutes later, following a Rapinoe corner to the far post.

This came seconds after Hoyle and Kirsty Yallop - an uncompromising presence in the heart of New Zealand's midfield - had combined to send Wilkinson buccaneering to the by-line once more, in the 33rd minute. This time, her pull-back for Gregorius was brilliantly read by Solo, who saved well at the front-runner's feet.

After Mewis had sent a teasing curler narrowly past the far post following the left flank enterprise of Sydney Leroux and Rapinoe, a driving run through the middle by the latter presented O'Reilly with a shooting chance.

Nayler parried her drive round the post, with the resulting corner eventually being cleared back to O'Reilly. She sent a low cross-shot sizzling across the six-yard box, Yael Averbuch reacting too late to turn it home on the far post.

Just when it looked as if the Football Ferns had done enough to head to the dressing rooms with a scoreless scoreline to the credit, Team USA struck in clinical fashion. Becky Sauerbrunn's cross-field
ball allowed Mewis to pick out Leroux further downfield.

The striker's deft turn inside caught out Stott, and afforded the front-runner the space in which to drive in-field. When she got to a spot near the 'D' where she found herself surrounded by black-clad opponents, Leroux pulled the trigger with stunning precision, the ball arrowing past the diving figure of Nayler and into the net right next to the post - a cracking strike, which delighted the local faithful.

Only the offside flag prevented Leroux from celebrating a second goal on the stroke of half-time, but when the teams emerged after the break, the Football Ferns made a change, introducing long-serving goalkeeper Jenny Bindon to the fray in what may be the last game she gets to play in the land of her birth.

It wasn't long before she was called into action, grabbing a Wambach header from an O'Reilly cross in the 53rd minute, seconds after Percival produced a vital tackle to thwart Leroux in the act of shooting, after the Football Ferns had been caught on the edge of their own penalty area trying to play the ball out from far too near their own goal.

If that was a close call, the next one was even closer, and came at the opposite end of the park. Hearn unleashed a piledriver which Mewis, at close quarters, copped the brunt of. As she slumped to the ground, Wilkinson latched onto the rebound and let rip a thirty yarder which Solo saved superbly, diving to her right.

She was less troubled by Yallop's attempt from similar distance in the 62nd minute, but had to deal with substitute Betsy Hassett's shot two minutes later, after Yallop had sent birthday girl Ali Riley flying down the left, the flying fullback forging her way past Sauerbrunn before sending a cross whizzing across goal.
Solo was called upon again three minutes later - this was easily the Football Ferns' most productive attacking spell - as she raced out of goal to clear the danger as Gregorius chased after a raking ball down the left by Stott, the speedster's last act of the match before making way for the Football Ferns' other birthday girl, Helen Collins.

Team USA hit back twenty minutes from time. Bindon's goal-kick was headed forward by substitute Carli Lloyd, whose first touch of the ball picked out Wambach. She set up O'Reilly for another surging run at the visitors' rearguard, before she slipped the ball into the stride of Leroux, whose first-time shot flew narrowly past Bindon's left-hand post.

A thirty yarder from Rapinoe flew narrowly past her right-hand post ten minutes later, as the Americans built up a head of steam with the final whistle fast approaching. But the wind was taken from their sails in the 87th minute, when the Football Ferns equalised.

Stott was the architect of this significant goal in New Zealand's women's football's history. Driving out of defence, she swept past two opponents en route to the half-way line, where she sent Wilkinson powering through the inside-right channel into the penalty area.

The striker promptly let fly with a clipped effort which Solo got a hand to, but not quite enough to divert it from its destination - inside the net by the far post, much to the delight of the Football Ferns, and the despair of the crowd, who were stunned into silence once more.

Cue the charge of the light brigade, as Team USA sought to regain the lead in the time remaining. Referee Charles-Kirton ruled play on as Percival and Wambach clashed in the goalmouth as a cross from substitute Christen Press arced across the goalmouth in the 88th minute.

Seconds later, Press went for goal herself, blazing the ball over the bar before seeing her headed effort headed clear by Hearn, following O'Reilly's angled free-kick from distance.
With time all but up on the clock, and Wilkinson having been replaced by debutant Megan Lee, one final attack on goal was mounted by the Football Ferns. Riley gathered the ball on half-way and stormed off downfield - she couldn't possibly score the winner against the land of her birth on her birthday, could she?

'Twas not to be, for the flying fullback had no intention of pulling the trigger. That honour would be bestowed on another substitute, one earning her fiftieth cap for her country. Upon receipt of Riley's pass, White duly let fly, but drilled the ball straight into the midriff of Solo - chance lost.

Not that the Football Ferns were too concerned, for when the final whistle sounded seconds later, they had concluded their year's action by holding the world's number one-ranked women's football-playing nation to a draw, their first ever against the reigning Olympic champions. A result to savour, and no mistake.

Jeremy Ruane

Team USA:     Solo; Krieger, Sauerbrunn, Rampone (Buehler, 46), Mewis; Holiday (booked, 23), Averbuch (Lloyd, 70), Rapinoe; O'Reilly, Wambach, Leroux (Press, 78)
F'ball Ferns:     Nayler (Bindon, 46); Percival, Stott, Erceg, Riley; Longo (Hassett, 60 (booked, 72)), Hoyle, Hearn, Yallop (White, 79); Wilkinson (Lee, 90), Gregorius (Collins, 67)
Referee:     Sabina Charles-Kirton (St. Lucia)