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Lloyd enjoys breakout game in U.S. women's 1-0 win over Japan

QINHUANGDAO, China -- U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd had to wear one of those Phantom of the Opera masks for several recent games to protect a broken nose, but after the U.S.'s 2-0 loss to Norway to start the Olympics she might have wanted to put on another mask -- this time to hide her identity.

"It was pretty upsetting," Lloyd said. "With [it] being my first Olympics, I was nervous."

It was hard for Lloyd not to think, Oh no, not again. The 26-year-old New Jersey native had hoped to become a breakout star at last year's Women's World Cup, but she had a humbling experience, drawing criticism for her defense and enduring coach Greg Ryan's strategy, which meant sending long-balls over Lloyd's head to the U.S. forwards. After the first round Ryan dropped Lloyd from the starting lineup entirely.

Lloyd has performed better in minor events -- she was the 2007 Algarve Cup MVP -- but she saved her first big game in a major tournament for Saturday, roofing a right-footed blast to score the U.S.'s lone goal in a 1-0 win here against Japan. Yet that wasn't the only reason Lloyd was the best player on the field; she also spent quality time in the grille of Japanese playmaker Homare Sawa and unhinged the Japanese defense with several dangerous passes of her own. (Take that, Long-ball Man!)

"Carli is unbelievable," said U.S. goalie Hope Solo, who had a solid (and busy) game herself. "It's all about providing the opportunity to play the game her style, to bring out the best in her. We finally have a style that shows it. She's been waiting for that breakthrough game. I got chills when I saw that goal."

It certainly helps Lloyd that she now has a coach in Pia Sundhage who wants to use her skills in the U.S. attack. "She's just given me the confidence to take risks in the final third and be my creative self that I like to be," Lloyd says. "And when the going gets tough, making sure I get the ball, settle us down and keep that rhythm. I wouldn't be playing this way if it wasn't for her."

Lloyd isn't a traditional No. 10 like Sawa -- the American shares too much of the passing and defensive loads with midfielder Shannon Boxx -- but it's clear that Lloyd is the more dangerous offensive threat of the U.S. midfield pairing. While Boxx is a useful defensive midfielder, Lloyd is a more complete player -- even if Sundhage isn't quite ready to hand over all the keys to the U.S. offense just yet.

"Obviously she's scoring goals," Sundhage said as Lloyd sat beside her. "I would put it like this: This is not only Carli Lloyd. It's Carli with Boxx. I usually mention them in pairs. In the future we could pick one or two players to be stars in the U.S. team, but right now it's about the team and pairs.

"Carli is exceptional on the ball and can play on both sides of the ball, left and right foot. She has all the tools. So in front of you I think you see a star ... in the future."

For now, though, this is a U.S. team that has no singular talents like Brazil's Marta, who scored her latest brilliant goal in a 2-0 win over North Korea on Saturday. When I asked Japanese coach Nono Sasaki how this U.S. women's soccer team compares to previous Olympic gold medal-winning outfits, this is what he had to say: "They are not the best of players but generally speaking they are still a very strong team."

And that's the concern with this U.S. bunch. It was hard enough for Sundhage to install a new playing style in just a few months on the job. But to make another huge change in the wake of Abby Wambach's broken leg may be asking too much. Any hopes that another forward could make the leap to imitate Wambach are out the window after two games of errant-finishing forwards (Amy Rodriguez, Natasha Kai, Angela Hucles).

"We are aware that we don't have the goal-scorer," Sundhage said when asked if she was concerned about a number of missed chances against Japan. "That's why we're not freaking out. We still created chances, and we talk so much about the center-midfielders. If the center-midfielders with Carli and Boxx are involved in the attack, we will create scoring chances. And it's OK to win 1-0.

"The more minutes we get together in the Olympics -- we now have 180 minutes and we get another 90 against New Zealand [on Tuesday] -- the better it is. We will improve our game from one day to another."

But will that improvement come fast enough? The loss to Norway means that the U.S. will almost certainly face Germany or a full-strength-and-clicking Brazil in the quarterfinals. And the Americans already know that scenario is a distinct possibility.

"I'm sure there's an awareness, but we just lost to Norway, so I think we're not looking past any team right now," Solo said. "I swear. We just need to get a win against New Zealand and freaking get out of our bracket and make it to the quarters."

And if it's U.S.-Brazil or U.S.-Germany? Then it'll simply be the most anticipated quarterfinal in the history of Olympic women's soccer.

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