Sports

The Best Player in the Women’s World Cup Might Be Heading Home Early

Watch Sam Kerr while you can.

Australia forward Sam Kerr celebrates her first-half goal.
Australia forward Sam Kerr celebrates her first-half goal.
FRANCOIS LO PRESTI/Getty Images

You don’t need to watch Sam Kerr play to know how good she is. Her resume is so impressive that the eye test feels superfluous. You could read her set of accomplishments and move her straight onto your shortlist for World’s Best Player, sight unseen.

She is the all-time top scorer in the National Women’s Soccer League and Australia’s W-League, which have staggered seasons that allow her to play a full slate in both each year.
She won the W-League Goal of the Year Award at age 16 in 2009 and the NWSL MVP in 2017. She’s scored 12 goals for her country since the beginning of 2018. She was among the bettors’ favorites to take home the Golden Boot as this World Cup’s top scorer, and ESPN declared her the best player in the tournament.

And yet, despite all that, she’s in serious danger of an early exit from the tournament after her sixth-ranked Australian team was upset 2-1 by Italy on Sunday.

Italy’s defense handled Kerr about as well as anyone has since 2017, but even then, it couldn’t keep her from finding the back of the net at least once. Kerr started the scoring on Sunday midway through the first half. Italian goalkeeper Laura Giuliani dove to her right to make a good save on Kerr’s penalty, but Kerr regained her balance and out-accelerated a pair of charging Italian players to slot home the rebound.

It was not a pretty goal, but you don’t get to be top scorer on opposite sides of the world scoring only pretty ones. And the goal seemed a sign of more to come, given her incredible skill set. She has quick feet and a powerful shot from range. She gives the impression of being stronger than any defenders who are faster than her and faster than any defenders who are stronger than her, and the only problem with that statement might be that there aren’t any defenders who are stronger or faster than her. She’s so good in the air that her 5-foot-6 listed height seems as if it has to be a deliberate, Kevin Durant-like understatement. She caps most of her goals with a roundoff backflip celebration, as if to prove that of course what she’s doing is easy for her. (Against Italy, her punch-the-flag celebration was an homage to Australia’s greatest-ever men’s player, the recently retired Tim Cahill.)

To chalk her success up to her obvious physical gifts sells short her timing and technique, her knack for identifying and mastering the means to get herself the little advantages that add up to better chances on goal. Watch her highlight reel and one of the dominant themes that emerges is that of opposing defenders lifting their hands in the air to appeal for offsides just after she’s scored; Kerr breaks through the line of defenders at the last second but not a second too soon. She is a master of a striker’s side-step dribble to give herself the foot of space necessary to get the shot off. She speeds the game up and slows it down, sometimes in the same run, taking her touches at different intervals to break a defender’s expected rhythm. She is the complete package, which makes the prospect of her early exit from a tournament that’s already missing Norway’s Ada Hegerberg and Danish star Pernille Harder that much more bracing.

Unfortunately, Kerr can only go as far as Australia’s defense will take her, and the Matildas’ backline spent much of the second half Sunday conjuring ways to make the Italians look good. They lost track of runners, missed tackles, and on Italy’s first goal, in the 56th minute, crumpled in the face of the Italian press, allowing Italy star Barbara Bonansea to nip a too-casual touch in the back and tie the game:

From there, the assistant referee did more to stop the Italians than Australia did. Italy was called offsides eight times during the game, often while through on goal. One can only imagine how many times Kerr and her impeccable timing could have scored against her own defense.

Australia’s defense played like a group that assumed Kerr would be able to bail it out at the other end. But its wingers and center midfielders seemed almost to be willfully ignoring Kerr when opportunities to provide service came in, their crosses and corner kicks sailing over her head or too close to the keeper.

Italy didn’t make the same mistake. When awarded a last-minute free kick deep in its own territory, it went straight for Bonansea, who out-backpedaled Kerr to deflect a header past Australian keeper Lydia Williams, who came out for a ball she couldn’t get to and took herself out of the play.

The format of a 24-team World Cup, where only eight teams are eliminated before the knockout rounds, is forgiving. With group games against a Brazil team that’s been in poor form and a Jamaica side that qualified for its first-ever World Cup, there’s every chance that Australia could bounce back from their opening disappointment. But the Group C favorites certainly didn’t look like a lock to advance on Sunday, which means there might only two games left for Kerr in this World Cup. You don’t need to watch her play to know how good she is, but it’d be nice if the world had the opportunity for a bit longer.