Team USA show colors in crunch time
The US women’s national team sure doesn’t like doing things easily on the world stage.
A year ago, it made heart-thumping comebacks a staple on its way to the World Cup final. While slow starts plagued them in Germany last summer, on most occasions, and particularly in crunch time, the Americans found a way to rally back.
The USA showed those colors again on Wednesday, shaking off an early 2-0 deficit and flexing its attacking muscle in an impressive 4-2 victory that keeps the reigning Olympic champions on course for a third straight gold medal.
Pia Sundhage’s revamped lineup, featuring Megan Rapinoe, Lauren Cheney and Tobin Heath in starting roles, gave the Americans the speed on the wings that exposed France’s sluggish defense on multiple occasions.
Rapinoe reprised her role as the French slayer. Just a year after coming on as a substitute and turning the USA’s fortunes around in the World Cup semifinal victory against the French, Rapinoe was at it again on Wednesday. Her nonstop running and steady stream of crosses and wide passes pried open the French defense that set up three of the USA’s four goals.
Rapinoe wasn’t the only familiar foe to trouble the French. Last year, Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach scored the goals that sealed the USA’s World Cup victory and they once again proved to be too much for the French defense to handle. Morgan entered Wednesday’s match with high expectations and responded emphatically, scoring the goal of the match off a perfect volley in the 31st minute to make it 2-2 and then and tapping home an insurance goal in the 66th minute to give the Americans some breathing space and the final 4-2 margin.
Sundhage’s decision to start the young and dynamic Heath over established veteran Heather O’Reilly raised some eyebrows in the lead-up to the Olympics. Yet, Heath rewarded her coach’s faith with an energetic effort on the left flank. She provided the perfect counter-balance to Rapinoe’s runs on the right, and her work on the USA’s fourth goal, when she laid off a perfect pass to Morgan playing with extreme confidence.
The French looked every bit the worthy adversary they were billed as entering the Olympic opener. Despite a slow start in the early minutes, France pounced on American blunders and showed off some clinical finishing to jump out 2-0. They weren’t content to sit on that lead though, and kept going at the Americans, which ultimately allowed the Americans to find the gaps to eventually pick apart the French defense.
The most impressive part of the USA’s comeback is that they pulled it off despite losing defensive midfielder Shannon Boxx to a hamstring injury. The anchor of the USA midfield and a vital link between the backline and attack, Boxx was expected to slow down France’s attack. When she limped off the field in Glasgow in the 17th minute, the Americans looked in danger of suffering a shock defeat.
Carli Lloyd made sure that didn’t happen, coming on for Boxx and providing a stabilizing force in the middle. Though not the defensive presence that Boxx is, Lloyd neutralized France’s midfield, particularly midfield ace Louisa Necib, who had a surprisingly quiet match for the French.
Lloyd not only did her part defensively, she delivered the game-winning dagger by collecting a pass from Rapinoe and rifling home a goal from 22 yards out to make the score 3-2 in the 55th minute. The 30-year-old midfielder did enough to show that she merits staying in the lineup, which may be a foregone conclusion considering the tight Olympic schedule and Boxx’s injured hamstring.
Not all was positive for team USA. Its defense looked extremely shaky, especially when France scored its two goals. In fact, France had plenty of chances to score, but a combination of poor shots and good saves from Hope Solo kept the French from adding to the score.
Rachel Buehler’s shaky form in central defense could force Sundhage to consider making a change, going with young Becky Sauerbrunn to partner with captain Christie Rampone instead. Buehler had her bad moments in recent friendlies, but another subpar performance just may be enough to lead Sundhage to make a change.
The USA’s defensive frailties may not matter as much in the team’s upcoming matches against Colombia and North Korea. Neither opponent can offer as much attacking firepower as France. In fact, barring any shock upsets, Wednesday’s opening victory should set the Americans up for a smooth run to the semifinals.
With the American attack looking so strong on Wednesday, and as much firepower as the USA has, the team’s defensive question marks do not seem to be much of a concern. Sundhage made it clear heading into these Olympics that she wanted a team that could play quality, attacking soccer, and while it may not lead to memorably defensive efforts, it sure looks like it will lead to plenty of goals for the defending Olympic champs.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FOXSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the US National Team.