Megan Rapinoe
Megan Rapinoe is congratulated after scoring her opening goal for the United States against Australia in the Women's World Cup. Reuters

The United States women’s soccer team came through a severe opening test of its World Cup credentials, overcoming a tying goal to beat Australia 3-1 in Winnipeg on Monday night.

Playing its first game in what has been declared the "Group of Death," the U.S. was outplayed for long stretches against 10th-ranked Australia before coming through strongly with the help of a double from Megan Rapinoe. After Rapinoe handed Jill Ellis’ squad an early lead courtesy of a deflected shot, the Matildas hit back through Lisa de Vanna, marking her 100th appearance for her country with a fine finish. The U.S. was struggling to get back in front until Sydney Leroux found Christen Press to side-foot into the net just past the hour mark. As the greater fitness of the U.S. began to tell, Rapinoe then broke clear to add a fine individual effort and make sure of an opening three points.

For a U.S. team desperate to avenge a penalty shootout loss to Japan in the final four years ago and win its first Women’s World Cup since 1999, the result was a welcome start. And it stands them in good stead in a group that has already seen its difficulty demonstrated by a 3-3 draw between high-flying Sweden and the group’s lowest-ranked team, Nigeria, earlier in the day.

The performance, though, left plenty of room for improvement if the United States is to hold the trophy aloft in Vancouver on July 5. Starting with Alex Morgan on the bench after a knee injury that ruled her out of the team’s three warm-up games, the U.S. lacked threat up front and were often outplayed in midfield and given plenty to think about in defense. The U.S. held a 22-0-2 all-time record against Australia coming into the match, outscoring its opponents 83-20 in the process. But the side from Down Under showed they have made big strides, only to ultimately fade late on as the U.S. finished strongly and decisively to settle matters in its favor.

However, for much of the first half the U.S. struggled. Indeed, it took a stunning save from Hope Solo to prevent the world’s second-ranked team from falling behind inside five minutes. Australia midfielder Emily van Egmund arrived onto the ball and hit a shot that appeared headed for the top of the net until Solo reached out at full stretch and got enough of her glove on the ball to turn it onto the crossbar.

Australia was continuing to cause problems, before, very much against the run of play, the U.S. was handed a gift. Rapinoe did plenty well in the buildup, winning the ball back after a long-ball forward and turning with aplomb past a defender. But her subsequent shot was threatening little before it took a big deflection off the knee of Alleway and flew into the opposite corner past the slow-to-react Melissa Barbieri.

Still, the U.S. couldn’t capitalize on its advantage, and within seconds of going in front it took another fine save form Solo to keep Australia at bay, this time denying a Samantha Kerr volley. But there was nothing Solo could do to prevent Australia pulling level in the 27th minute. A fine Australia move culminated in a fortuitous touch from Michelle Heyman that knocked the ball onto to De Vanna to strike a clinical low shot into the corner of Solo’s net.

The U.S. spurned a couple of chances from set-pieces either side of the half-time interval, but was struggling to find a way through. The unease of the U.S. could be seen by Morgan being sent to warm up with increasing vigor on the sidelines with 30 minutes remaining. The team’s star forward would make her entrance but with 15 minutes to go and after her team had sealed victory.

Leroux, benefiting from Morgan’s injury, had done little in the contest, but it was her electric burst of pace that created the vital go-ahead goal. The forward showed fine awareness at the end of her run to pick out Press, who fired low past Barbieri. With 12 minutes remaining, the U.S. made sure of the win thanks to Rapinoe’s breakaway run and precise shot, allowing Morgan to make her return with the pressure off as her team saw out a win that was far more complicated than the score-line suggested.