PAISLEY, Scotland — A 2018 campaign that began in San Diego sunshine closed Tuesday on a cold, rain-whipped night at a simple little stadium on the outskirts of Glasgow.
It wasn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, a glamorous setting to mark the end of a year littered with few blemishes. And the performance featured more grit than elegance. But with a 1-0 victory over spirited Scotland, the top-ranked U.S. women’s national soccer team capped the year the way the Americans began it and navigated it: without a defeat.
Alex Morgan’s goal late in the first half — the 98th of her career — secured an 18-0-2 record this year and extended an unbeaten streak to 28 since the summer of 2017. The Americans have recorded nine consecutive shutouts (albeit against overmatched opponents) and continue to pass every test, to varying degrees, in preparation for defending their title at the Women’s World Cup next summer in France.
“What we did in 2018 is great and amazing," attacker Carli Lloyd said, “but what matters is how we are looking going into 2019 and when we get to the World Cup.”
The Americans will learn their World Cup opponents Dec. 8 at the draw in Paris. Otherwise, they will embrace time off before reconvening in January ahead of another trip to Europe for matches against world contender France and an opponent to be determined.
“There are still some steps to grow for this next six months,” Morgan said. “We have a well-deserved break. My legs definitely need a break — not going to touch boots for two or three weeks at least. Then obviously we have to pick it back up and it’s eyes on World Cup.”
Coach Jill Ellis began looking ahead by playing a pair of matches in Europe — a rarity for a program that rarely leaves home soil — against teams from traditional soccer-playing countries that have begun to succeed in the women’s game.
The Americans labored to a 1-0 victory over Portugal on Thursday and encountered some difficult moments against Scotland, which has qualified for the World Cup for the first time.
In front of a crowd of 3,790 at St. Mirren Park, the Scots engaged in defensive tactics that, Ellis said, “forces you into situations where you have to problem-solve. That’s exactly what we needed and why we come to play games like this.”
These matches also allowed her, with several roster absences, to play less-experienced players and tweak formations and tactics. Morgan, for instance, started on the left wing instead of center forward. Crystal Dunn, the starting left back all year, moved into central midfield.
Emily Fox, a University of North Carolina sophomore from Ashburn, Va., debuted with the senior squad by starting both matches on this trip. She will now rejoin the Tar Heels for the remainder of the NCAA tournament.
“I’m extremely thankful and excited,” said Fox, a Stone Bridge High graduate who started at right back against Portugal and left back against Scotland. “Even though it’s only been two weeks, I feel like I’ve learned so much that I can apply back home. The coaches and the team were very welcoming.”
Fox and the Americans were tested a bit by the Scots, who were competent on the ball and threatened twice against second-choice goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris in the first half. Caroline Weir’s free kick required a last-gasp clearance on the back side of the six-yard box. Later, Morgan cleared a corner kick off the goal line after the ball whizzed past Harris.
Otherwise, the Americans were in control of the ball and the match. The absence of Tobin Heath (personal commitments) and Megan Rapinoe (muscle tightness) left them without their top wings and the usual relentless threats from wide positions.
U.S. patience was rewarded in the 39th minute, however, as Mallory Pugh, a Washington Spirit winger, served a brilliant ball from the right side to Morgan, who slipped her mark and volleyed from six yards for her 18th goal in 19 appearances this year.
The margin remained tight because of Scotland’s approach and discipline.
“We set out to tactically make sure it was difficult for them,” Scottish Coach Shelley Kerr said. “You could see that was the case. I never like losing. Neither do the players. But when you are playing the world champions, you have to be realistic.”
Lloyd could have doubled the lead but rattled the crossbar with a penalty kick in the 62nd minute. Harris preserved the lead with a fine save in the 80th minute on Lana Clelland’s searing bid.
“It’s been a long year, a great year in terms of results,” Ellis said. “Now we rest up for next year.”
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