Sam Kerr's four goals lift Australia to knockout round
GRENOBLE, France -- And there it was. A little more than 10 minutes into Australia's 4-1 defeat of Jamaica at the Stade des Alpes on Tuesday night, Matildas captain Sam Kerr did what every Australian fan -- and quite frankly, the rest of the world -- had been waiting to see at this Women's World Cup. The 25-year-old forward leapt out of her boots to head a lofty cross from Emily Gielnik and opened scoring for Australia with the kind of goal that has made her the leading scorer in both the NWSL and Australia's W-League, and one of the most popular players on the planet.
"Any time I score, it feels good," Kerr said after the match. "But the most important thing was the victory."
In the 42nd minute, Kerr did it again. In the 70th, she did it left-footed, becoming the first Australian player -- man or woman -- to record a hat trick at a World Cup.
In the 83rd, she added a fourth. Only two other players -- Americans Alex Morgan and Michelle Akers -- have scored more goals (five) in a single Women's World Cup game. And no player has scored more in a single World Cup game while also accounting for all of his or her team's goals.
"She just shows up, doesn't she, whenever you need her," defender Steph Catley said after the match. "She's a superhero like that. The rest of the players also did their jobs and got the ball to her head, which was important."
After each of her scores, Kerr's muted fist-pumps and low-fives celebrations made Carli Lloyd's golf clap on Sunday night look like an effusive explosion of emotion. But there was a method to Kerr's lack of madness.
"I wanted more," Kerr said. "I was trying to get them to cross it in more, to play quicker. We didn't know what was going on in [Italy-Brazil], so we wanted to get as many goals as we could. And I was pretty tired, to be fair."
Before the match, Australia coach Ante Milicic said, more than once, that to win this match against a fast, physical Jamaica team with nothing to lose would require a team performance. He was not concerned with forward Lisa De Vanna earning her 150th cap (she did), or Kerr putting on a scoring show.
"We didn't want to have that focus before the game be on individuals," Milicic said on Tuesday. "It was about winning the game."
Here's what we learned in Australia's record-setting win:
The Matildas dodged a blue-and-red bullet
At halftime of both Australia-Jamaica and Italy-Brazil -- which were being played simultaneously on opposite ends of the country -- the group standings were still up in the air. Then Marta scored to send Brazil up 1-0. That meant the Matildas, up 3-1 at the time, needed (at least) a fourth goal to finish second in the group and avoid a far-too-early faceoff with France.
"At the time, I didn't know how important that goal was," Kerr said of her fourth strike. "Being my selfish self, I wanted more after that."
With a second-place finish, Australia next travels to Nice, France, to face Norway in the Round of 16 on Saturday night.
The Matildas needed a straightforward win
Recovering physically after this match -- and after playing three matches in 10 days -- will be tough enough. Recovering emotionally is another thing altogether.
With an assist from social media, the Australian players arguably swung too low after their loss to Italy and too high after the Brazil win, neither of which demanded the level of worry or celebration they drew. But if Kerr's post-goal celebrations were any indication, the Matildas will travel to Nice with focused, level heads.
They also need rest
Pre-match, Milicic had a tough decision: utilize his best starting 11, or rest key players ahead of the knockout rounds. To that end, the match opened with forward Caitlin Foord and midfielder Elise Kellond-Knight on the bench, 16-year-old Mary Fowler available as a sub and De Vanna, who is playing in her fourth World Cup, starting at forward. Karly Roestbakken made her debut on the starting back line, and midfielder Katrina Gorry slid into the starting 11 in place of injured Tameka Yallop.
"Our health is definitely a concern," Milicic said after the match.
"We've had an opportunity to freshen up a couple players tonight, but with a three-day turnaround and Norway with an extra day of rest, we really have to have a look at [the lineup] in the next couple of days. But it's looking positive."
Australia's defense is still problematic
Jamaica is fast, strong and physical, and after making halftime adjustments, the Reggae Girlz disrupted the Matildas' defense and dominated the first 20 minutes of the second 45. Fortunately for Australia, that disorganized period ended with only one goal for Jamaica.
"At 2-1, we got nervous on the ball and we lost our playing structure," Milicic said. "We need to be better in areas of transition. We get sloppy and put ourselves under unnecessary pressure, playing the ball into midfield players that are marked or under pressure.
"There are phases in the game when we move away from our style and struggle. It's a brave playing style, but when we do it right, we're dangerous."
That a team that entered the match with a minus-eight goal differential and scored on the Matildas is worrisome. It also raises the question: If Jamaica can get on the board, what can Norway or France or the United States do?
"We've learned so much every game," Catley said postmatch. "Defensively our structure has been better throughout the tournament. At times, we were disconnected in our lines and not working off each other as much we should, but we've shored that up. We got conceded against again tonight, though, and we will learn from that."
Jamaica's goal was a promise for the future
The Matildas walked onto the pitch Tuesday night wanting to top the group; Jamaica was looking for a souvenir W -- and its first goal -- reminders of the work it took to get to France and the potential for the future of its program. The first Caribbean team to qualify for the Women's World Cup, Jamaica is only the second CONCACAF team since Mexico in 1999 to leave the WWC without a group stage point.
But for a few moments, the disappointment of failing to advance out of the group stage was eclipsed by an emotional, full-team celebration of the first Jamaican goal in Women's World Cup history. Less than five minutes into the second half, midfielder Havana Solaun, a second-half sub, became the first Jamaican woman to score at a World Cup.