Like a good visit to the doctor's office, a 4-1 win against China on Sunday was most noteworthy for the United States in how generally unremarkable the game was. (Although, as with taking a physical, a rough-and-tumble game probably left the U.S. team feeling a tad manhandled).
Simply put, the United States should beat China these days, their long-running rivalry resting more on past lore than current competitiveness. It's not that the Chinese team that took the field at Toyota Park on the outskirts of Chicago was an unworthy opponent or in a completely different class, but it was hardly the China of old. The technical precision was still there, but there was something missing. To borrow a boxing analogy, the Chinese looked like a team hoping to wear down an opponent with jabs and win a decision on points.
At its best in the past, with Sun Wen threatening defenses as few other players ever have, China followed all those jablike passes with knockout uppercuts. But with the exception of one nice counter that took advantage of a rare breakdown in the center of Greg Ryan's defense and led to the game's first goal, China struggled to turn what limited possession it had into dangerous offensive forays.
But a win is a win, and China remains a world-class, if slightly weakened, opponent. And even more important than the result, which included two more goals from Kristine Lilly, the game offered one more chance for the United States to work toward longer-term goals.
"We're in a marathon right now; it's not a sprint," Abby Wambach said after the U.S. beat Canada in the last game before Sunday's encounter with China. "Around the whole board, you like to think about moving forward and keeping a positive attitude."
So, in addition to the goals by Lilly, Aly Wagner and Cat Whitehill, what stood out in Sunday's action?
Is there room for two in goal for the United States?
Although China's first-half goal had to weigh on Briana Scurry's mind, given all the clean sheets kept by Hope Solo in recent action, the defensive breakdown came long before Scurry got involved in the play. The game didn't offer the veteran keeper a wealth of other opportunities in her first start since late in 2004 -- although she did look like the Scurry of old as she leaped high to be in position for a hard strike that sailed just over the crossbar instead. Even so, though, she did little to suggest Ryan should reconsider his plan to alternate keepers through the Peace Cup before deciding on a top choice for World Cup qualifying.
Is it time for Ryan to give Natasha Kai a start?
Probably not, but it would be fun to see what she could do with a full 90 minutes. Kai was unable to extend her scoring streak (she had five goals in eight games entering play Sunday) after coming on late in the second half against China, but she did show a few typical flashes of dazzling athleticism.
With the benefit of months of residency training, Ryan knows full well what Kai can offer, as well as what rough edges still need to be smoothed out in her game. And given the depth up front on the U.S. roster (Ryan didn't select Christie Welsh for Sunday's game), it's almost impossible to imagine Kai moving into the top three in time for the World Cup next summer or the Olympics in 2008. Her value for now remains as an energy boost in the second half, one capable of striking quickly to get the U.S. back in a game or help it salt away a win.
But from the perspective of the fans at these international friendlies, more chances to see a player who brings the same kind of "wow" factor as a Reggie Bush or Michael Vick would be welcome.
Is Carli Lloyd officially a regular?
It sure seems that way, even if Lloyd earned just her 13th cap starting alongside Wagner and Leslie Osborne in the three-person midfield in Sunday's game. The former Rutgers star didn't factor in any of Sunday's goals, but aside from one unfortunate gaffe on the ball in the second half that short-circuited an attack, she played a big role in keeping the Chinese on their heels for much of the game.
Lloyd, 24, had never started a game before this spring's Algarve Cup in Portugal, but she continues to draw attention with her playmaking creativity and relentless energy. Ryan has two quality choices -- Lloyd and Lindsay Tarpley -- when choosing a midfielder to play with Wagner in front of Osborne (or Shannon Boxx, when she eventually returns from a knee injury), but Lloyd's play in the past six months has to make it easier for the coach to consider keeping Tarpley as a valuable and versatile option up front off the bench.
Now, if Lloyd can just get her first goal.
Did Tina Frimpong's absence highlight her value?
It's not fair to throw Amy LePeilbet under the bus after one team mistake helped open the door for China's lone goal. The mistake overshadowed a half of otherwise good work for the Illinois native playing with the dual pressure of attempting to impress the coaching staff and her friends and family in attendance. But Frimpong, who was held out while nursing a sore hamstring, looks more and more like a valuable part of the U.S. defense with Kate Markgraf out on maternity leave.
A converted forward many fans on message boards think still is ideally suited for midfield, Frimpong has speed that seems to work well next to steady (and suddenly goal-crazy) Whitehill. Frimpong started each of the team's three games in July, with LePeilbet coming on in the second half each time, and it will be interesting to see whether she's back in the starting lineup for the next game if she's at full speed. Elsewhere on defense, Heather Mitts, Christie Rampone and Lori Chalupny all turned in solid performances, with Chalupny again making herself noticeable with some nice runs after coming on for LePeilbet at halftime.
Next up for the United State is a game against Mexico on Sep. 13 in Rochester, N.Y.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com