Australia do enough vs. USWNT as Fowler and Carpenter show the way forward

Winning mentality missing for USWNT in Australia draw (1:37)

The USWNT advances to the knockout stages in Tokyo, but fails to impress in a 0-0 draw with Australia. (1:37)

The knockout stages of the Olympic women's football tournament are set as the United States sealed progress after a 0-0 draw with Australia to set up a World Cup final rematch with Netherlands, while the Matildas did enough to scrape through as one of the top third-placed teams and will face Great Britain in the quarterfinals.

Here are three things we learned from Tuesday's action.

Sometimes, you just have to do enough

For every football match characterised by wild, end-to-end open play, there are others that are hard slogs: the kinds of games that look like how a hangover feels, with everything slightly slower and sloppier than usual.

But it's those games that are arguably more important for teams to grind out performances and get the job done even while not playing at their best. The Matildas' final group match against the United States was one of the few times these two sides have played out such a scenario. In the past, this has been one of international football's most exciting clashes; Australia have always been up for the battle against the USWNT, especially since many players have met with/against each other at club level for so long.

Australia's first-ever win over the U.S. at the 2017 Tournament of Nations added some extra spice to a matchup that had almost always fallen in their opponents' favour. That historic win was followed up by a sizzling 1-1 draw in the same tournament the following year, with the U.S.'s blushes saved only by a Lindsay Horan header in stoppage time. Their last meeting was a chaotic 5-3 friendly win for the U.S. in 2019 with both sides exchanging goals until the final half hour when the hosts ran away with it.

Compare that to Tuesday's 0-0 in Group G, which, for at least the first half, felt like the antithesis to their recent clashes. That may be the result of this high-turnover tournament setting: Australia made three changes from the game against Sweden, while the U.S. (whose squad is older, on average, than almost all others at the Olympic Games) swapped out five. And, after playing three games in 10 days, it's usually around this time that fatigue starts to set in.

The more conservative pace and energy of the game may also be strategic. The U.S. knew that a draw would get them through in second spot, while Australia were pretty confident that the same would see them progress as one of the best third-placed teams across the tournament with China needing a four-goal win over Netherlands to stop them (they lost 8-2.) Neither side, then, really needed anything more than just to manage the game and their own bodies.

But for a handful of chances by either side (and a very tight offside call by VAR on Alex Morgan's header in the first half), the game was evenly matched. It was perhaps a more impressive performance by the Matildas given the U.S. had just come off a 6-1 thrashing of New Zealand and are still favourites for the gold medal, even if they might not have shown it here. So while it may not have been a particularly memorable performance from either team, it was a necessary one. And sometimes that's all you need.

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Ellie Carpenter is becoming Australia's most valuable player

During the Matildas' pre-Tokyo friendlies, manager Tony Gustavsson strangely chose to deploy Carpenter -- one of Australia's most dynamic full-backs -- as one of three central defenders in his new-look 3-4-3 formation.

By putting Carpenter into a dedicated defensive role, the attacking momentum and overlapping width she offered was blunted. However, after her performance against the U.S., it is clear that she is becoming a much more multi-dimensional defender, and that Gustavsson's early experiments with her position pay off in certain tactical moments.

The fact Australia kept a star-studded U.S. side scoreless with a back three, which the Matildas have struggled to maintain over a full 90-minute performance, showed how far this side have come since Gustavsson took over in January.

Carpenter's evolution is a particularly insightful example. There has always been a question about her defensive abilities as her desire to attack means she often leaves herself, and therefore the rest of the team, vulnerable in behind. Her speed is able to address that, yet there can be a lack of maturity and patience in her timing. But by deploying Carpenter as part of a back three, Gustavsson has placed more defensive responsibility on her shoulders, forcing her to become a more well-rounded player who can make smarter decisions and manage her own game.

Keeping Ballon d'Or winner Megan Rapinoe quiet is no easy feat. While some of her passing may have been off, Carpenter did not look flustered or overwhelmed with more defensive pressure in that back three, and made a number of crucial tackles and interceptions to ensure Australia saw the game through to the end. Her move to become an alternative centre-back option is certainly looking a smart call.

Mary Fowler is the future

Minutes before kick-off, as the camera scanned across the two teams lining up in the tunnel, fans were surprised to see a face that was, according to the teamsheet, not supposed to be there. While Arsenal winger Caitlin Foord had been scheduled to start her third consecutive match, it was instead 18-year old Fowler who was brought in at the last minute, with Foord dropping off the bench altogether.

Matildas fans have seen glimpses of Fowler during the recent friendlies, deployed both in midfield and in her more natural position as a striker. She scored one of Australia's only goals throughout that period and gave the world an exciting preview of a player who clearly has incredible potential.

We saw more of that potential in her shock start against the U.S. and had the biggest chance of the game for Australia in the 17th minute when her looping header looked to have beaten goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, only for it to ping back in off the crossbar.

Despite her age, Fowler did not look out of place against the USWNT and, having been kept on the fringes for several years, including watching Australia struggle through the Women's World Cup in France, she is finally getting a chance to show what she is capable of.

"Mary, being a young player, I'm impressed [with] how she handled the potential stress that can come in a situation like that," Gustavsson said afterwards. "But she was cool, ready, and smiled when she heard she's going to play. She got it five minutes before we walked out of the locker room for the line-ups; she didn't even warm up for the game in that sense. And then five minutes before, she got the message and said, 'Okay, I'll do it.' For a young player to do that shows that she has mental strength."

Let's hope this is the first of many opportunities Fowler is given, because if her flashes of brilliance are anything to go by, there is so much more to come.