U.S. women face a rising South Africa that launched in post-apartheid Johannesburg

In 1993, three years after anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela's 27 years of political-prisoner incarceration ended, South Africa played its first women's soccer national team game.

Desiree Ellis (photo, above), now coach of the South Africa team that faces the U.S. women on Thursday and Sunday, scored a hat trick. A couple days later, she lost her job at a Cape Town meat market.

The 14-0 win over Swaziland (now Eswatini) took place in Johannesburg. A flat tire on the 860-mile bus trip bringing Ellis back to Cape Town caused the delay to work that got her fired from the spice counter.

South Africa reached its first Women's World Cup in 2019, when Ellis served as assistant coach.

South Africa qualified for its first men's World Cup in 1998. The late debut by its men's, which played its first games in 1906, can be attributed to South Africa's suspension from international sports because of its white minority-rule, which included a ban on mixed-race sports teams.

FIFA lifted its 32-year ban on South Africa in 1992 after the March apartheid referendum ended the policy, led to Mandela's presidency, and enabled South Africa to host the 2010 Men's World Cup.

At the 2019 Women's World Cup, South Africa lost all three games, outscored by 8-1.

After Ellis became head coach, Banyana Banyana qualified as African champion for the 2023 Women's World Cup. It reached the round of 16, falling to the Netherlands, 2-0, after finishing second behind eventual third-place finisher Sweden in Group C. Banyana Banyana lost, 2-1, to Sweden in its group opener before a 2-2 tie with Argentina and 3-2 win over Italy.

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Thursday, Sept. 21 in Cincinnati (TQL Stadium, capacity: 26,000)
7:30 p.m. ET (TNT, Universo and Peacock)

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Thirty years after its launch, several members of South Africa's women's national team still have to work day jobs.

Kaylin Swart, for instance, plays for JVW FC in South Africa’s semipro SAFA Women’s League while working 9-to-5 as a school administrative assistant and P.E. coach.

Swart is one of 18 players from South Africa’s 2023 World Cup squad on the 21-player roster for the games against the USA. They include the team’s biggest star: The 27-year-old Thembi Kgatlana, who joined the NWSL’s Racing Louisville during the 2022 season, scored South Africa's first Women's World Cup goal (its only in 2019 competition), and scored the gamewinner in its first World Cup victory, against Italy in New Zealand.

The only players from Banyana Banyana’s 2023 World Cup team not in the current squad are injured defender Sibulele Holweni; Hildah Magaia, who scored against Sweden and Italy; and backline starter Noko Matlou. Magaia is absent because of medical reasons and Matlou is missing because of "visa challenges," according the SAFA (South Africa Football Association).

“We always knew that this game would come soon after the World Cup and the [SAFA Women’s League] has only been on the go for two weeks, so we went with players that have played regularly,” Ellis said.

While a round-of-16 appearance for South Africa marked an unprecedented success for its program, for the USA the exit in the first round of the knockout stage marked the four-time champion’s worst-ever finish, having never previously failed to reach the semifinals.

Yet the U.S. squad led by Twila Kilgore, head coach on an interim basis in the wake of Vlatko Andonovski's resignation, includes all the available players from the USA’s 23-player 2023 World Cup squad, including retiring Julie Ertz, who will play her last competitive soccer match on Thursday.

Injured Kristie Mewis and Sophia Smith were left off the Kilgore’s initial 27-player squad. Rose Lavelle and Kelley O’Hara were on the original roster but have been replaced, because of injury and fitness concerns, by Midge Purce and M.A. Vignola.

Banyana Banyana arrived in Ohio on Monday and had their first training on Tuesday.

“The first day is always a difficult day, especially after the long travel, but I think we had a good night,” Ellis said. “Everyone looks enthusiastic and excited to be together again, and to be playing again. …

“It is extremely hot, obviously not the weather we are used to, but I think we have done really well today.”

The two games will provide a chance to watch a South African team on the rise against a U.S. team in need of rebuilding.

How much they reveal about the USA’s move into a new era will depend on how much playing time Kilgore gives to the players who weren’t Down Under.

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U.S. women's national team roster
* Aubrey Kingsbury (Washington Spirit) 1/0 (31)
* Casey Murphy (North Carolina Courage) 14/0 (27)
* Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars) 95/0 (35)

* Alana Cook (OL Reign) 25/1 (26)
Tierna Davidson (Chicago Red Stars) 49/1 (24)
* Crystal Dunn (Portland Thorns) 136/24 (31)
* Emily Fox (North Carolina Courage) 33/1 (25)
* Naomi Girma (San Diego Wave) 20/0 (23)
* Sofia Huerta (OL Reign) 31/0 (30)
Casey Krueger (Chicago Red Stars) 38/0 (33)
* Emily Sonnett (OL Reign) 77/1 (29)
M.A. Vignola (Angel City) 0/0 (25)

Sam Coffey (Portland Thorns) 4/0 (24)
* Savannah DeMelo (Racing Louisville) 3/0 (25)
* Julie Ertz (Unattached) 122/20 (31)
* Lindsey Horan (Olympique Lyon, FRA) 133/29 (29)
* Ashley Sanchez (Washington Spirit) 25/3 (24)
* Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit) 49/3

Mia Fishel (Chelsea, ENG) 0/0 (22)
Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit) 19/5 (28)
* Alex Morgan (San Diego Wave) 211/121 (34)
Midge Purce (NY/NJ Gotham) 23/4 (28)
* Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign) 202/63 (38)
* Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit) 22/4 (21)
Jaedyn Shaw (San Diego Wave) 0/0 (18)
* Alyssa Thompson (Angel City) 6/0 (18)
* Lynn Williams (NJ/NY Gotham) 55/15 (30)
* Members of the 2023 World Cup squad.
Note: World Cup veterans Rose Lavelle and Kelley O’Hara were on the original roster but were replaced, because of injury, by Purce and Vignola

Up Next: The USA hosts South Africa again on Sunday at Soldier Field in Chicago (5:30 p.m. ET).

Photo: Matthew Lewis - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

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