Chalupny scores to lead US in dream homecoming at Busch

ST. LOUIS — Even Disney couldn’t have scripted a better homecoming for St. Louis native Lori Chalupny.

The 31-year-old defender didn’t just come off the bench and play in front of a record-setting crowd of 35,817 at Busch Stadium, home to her beloved Cardinals. She scored the pivotal goal in a convincing 4-0 win over New Zealand to earn Woman of the Match honors for a performance she could hardly believe herself.

"I actually asked her afterwards, ‘Did you think you were going to score? It’s your 99th cap in St. Louis, did you think it was possible?’" said Becky Sauerbrunn, another native St. Louisan and former All-American at Ladue Horton Watkins High School. "She’s like, ‘No way.’"

Chalupny came on in the 57th minute and looked a little nervous when she didn’t quite hit her first shot solidly and it rolled harmlessly wide of the near post. Just a few minutes later, Megan Rapinoe found Chalupny again on the left side near the top of the box, and this time she connected perfectly to send the ball soaring into the roof of the net.

That sparked a stretch of three goals in less than six minutes as the United States relentlessly attacked a New Zealand defense that struggled to keep the ball out of its own box the entire match. Chalupny’s goal looked similar to Meghan Klingenberg’s opening strike, which came in the first half when she found plenty of space and drilled a poor clearance into the net from about 25 yards out.

"I thought our attack was great," Chalupny said. "We were getting a lot of looks and I just was really pleased with the way that we were moving the ball, so I figured there’s a chance (to get a shot)."

US defenders accounted for the first three goals of the game; center back Julie Johnston added a header off a Lauren Holiday free kick in the 78th minute. New Zealand — ranked 17th in the latest FIFA rankings and playing in this summer’s World Cup — never really challenged the American backline as goalkeeper Hope Solo finished without a save. 

Coach Jill Ellis said Friday she’d like outside backs to press up into the attack, and she expects that to be an advantage this summer when the US goes to Canada. Ellis wants to have three outside backs capable of starting at the World Cup, and Chalupny’s play looks to have her in the mix.


"I consider she can start for us, so I was pleased with that," Ellis said. "I was really pleased with the contributions, but also the energy the players who came off the bench gave us."

A spot on the roster, let alone in the first 11, seemed unlikely for Chalupny less than a year ago, when she hadn’t even played for the national team since 2009 due to concussions. But her impressive contributions for the National Women’s Soccer League’s Chicago Red Stars caught the attention of Ellis, who took over as the national team’s eighth coach last May.

"(Chalupny)’s had a real weird road on this team and for her to be back, she’s such a quality player," Rapinoe said. "She absolutely deserves to be here, 100 percent." 

Defense figured to be Chalupny’s ticket to Canada, though Ellis likes the idea of a left-footed player who could also step into the midfield if necessary. Chalupny proved her offensive prowess again with her first national team goal since Sept. 20, 2008.

This one, though, will be a little more memorable not just because of her improbable comeback, but also because it happened at home in front of the third-largest crowd to witness a women’s friendly in the United States. Ellis praised the groundskeepers for an ideal grass surface, and every American player who spoke to the media lauded the incredible atmosphere at Busch.

"We could not have asked for a better crowd, a better day, a better score," Sauerbrunn said. "Everything just kind of worked out. It was, I think, the best experience I’ve ever had on a soccer field."

That’s a remarkable statement from a player who has started in a World Cup semifinal win in 2011, led FC Kansas City to last season’s NWSL title and played every minute of a four-game run to an Algarve Cup title last month. She’s hoping for even more success in the months to come, with the US setting its sights on a third World Cup title.

The US women took another big step toward that goal Saturday, and especially for Chalupny, it might be a good time to take a moment to appreciate this leg of the journey.

"Just to be here playing at Busch Stadium, playing in St. Louis in front of friends and family is enough," Chalupny said. "Then to score a goal is pretty amazing. I feel like I’m living in a dream a little bit."

You can follow Luke Thompson on Twitter at @FS_LukeT or email him at lukegthompson87@gmail.com.