SAN DIEGO -- It's been nearly a decade since the women's national soccer team finished a year with fewer victories than the 12 it had last season. And it's been 16 years since it lost more games than the three it lost in 2017.
That probably says more about how good the U.S. women have been over the years than it does about last season's 12-3-1 record. But it's also evidence of a bigger plan by coach Jill Ellis, who challenged her team by scheduling games against eight of the top countries in the world last year in preparation for the 2019 World Cup.
And it's a strategy that appears to be paying off if Sunday's 5-1 win over Denmark, before an announced crowd of 17,526 at SDCCU Stadium, is any indication. In its first game of the new year, the U.S. looked poised, polished and purposeful in routing a team that reached the final of last summer's European championships.
"In the course of a year you want to play a variety of styles and systems to test yourself," Ellis said after a game in which her team outshot Denmark 19-6 and gave up just one shot on goal. "We took a good step tonight and it's continuing to grow.
"We always will learn more about ourselves in terms of being challenged. The final exam here is 2019."
Denmark, ranked 12th in the world, stunned the No. 1 Americans in the 14th minute when Nadia Nadim, an Afghan refugee who obtained Danish citizenship eight years after fleeing her homeland, nodded home Katrine Veje's corner kick from the edge of the six-yard box for a 1-0 lead.
But a mistake by Danish keeper Stina Lykke Petersen allowed the U.S. to pull even three minutes later.
After stopping a shot from Alex Morgan, Petersen tried to clear the ball to Veje only to have Mallory Pugh step in front of the long throw on the right side of the penalty area.
Pugh then sent the ball back toward the goal for Morgan, who tapped it in. In the 19th minute, the U.S. went ahead to stay when Julie Ertz redirected in a long header from teenager Tierna Davidson, who earned the assist in her first national team appearance.
Pugh, who scored her first career goal in her first U.S. cap in the same stadium two years ago, made it 3-1 two minutes into the second half when she jumped another bad pass, this one just outside the center circle, raced two Danish defenders into the 18-yard box, then beat Petersen cleanly with a right-footed shot.