GLASGOW, Scotland -- It's hard to put a happy face on how badly the first 20 minutes of the Olympics went for the U.S. women's soccer team. One French goal flew in from outside the box. Then the Americans gave up another after failing to clear the ball from danger. And then starting midfielder Shannon Boxx had to leave the game after suffering a hamstring injury.
Down 2-0 and missing a starter against a French team that had won 17 straight games, the U.S. could have crumbled; but instead the Americans rallied with a stirring comeback to score four unanswered goals (two by budding superstar Alex Morgan). By the final whistle, when the sound of bagpipes filled the stadium (I like to call them Scottish vuvuzelas), the U.S. had comfortably sealed a 4-2 victory at Hampden Park.
There was plenty of credit to go around in an entertaining game that showed the values of the U.S.'s experience and maturity. Take midfielder Carli Lloyd, for example -- the 30-year-old Lloyd has started plenty of big games in her career and scored the game-winner in the 2008 Olympic final, but she didn't pout when she found herself on the bench at the start against France. When Boxx went down with an early injury, Lloyd came on and had a terrific game, covering acres of space and scoring the decisive goal on a blistering 25-yard blast.
Lloyd said afterward that she wanted to respond to her benching in the right way, and she did so in the most emphatic manner possible. Lloyd has a lot of New Jersey brassiness in her, the kind you need if you're going to take shots from distance, which has become her trademark on the U.S. team.
"Carli came in and did us proud," said forward Abby Wambach. "She didn't let anything get to her head. It wasn't about ego. It was about coming on and supporting the team ... She has a belief in herself. When you're 25 to 35 yards out, you have to have a belief, and you have to have a good shot."
Coach Pia Sundhage has moved Lauren Cheney into Lloyd's spot in recent games, pushing Lloyd into a substitute's role. But even Sundhage said leading up to the game that she thought her substitutes would be the match-winners. It turned out she was right.
"I'm impressed with the way [Lloyd] has handled it from day one," said goalkeeper Hope Solo. "She's a leader on this team, a rock, a great midfielder. We have so many great players. It's one of those things. What does the game mean? What does Pia want on the field? [Lloyd's benching] doesn't mean Carli's less of a player. It doesn't mean she's not playing well. She's still a leader on this team."
Give credit too to Morgan, who showed with her two goals that she isn't all about speed. Morgan's lightning-fast pace certainly puts her in dangerous positions, but on Wednesday she proved that her game has plenty of subtlety and useful restraint, too. On both goals Morgan managed to time her run perfectly to keep from being offside, and her opening strike featured a delicate pause to let the ball bounce to her foot before hitting a looping finish *just right* to beat the onrushing goalkeeper.
"Timing is everything for me," Morgan said later, after she had been delayed postgame for FIFA's standard randomly selected drug testing. Her timing is pretty good in general. With two goals to start an Olympics that she has received plenty of attention for already, Morgan has a chance to become a megastar in the United States. I'll say it in whispered tones for now, but with 28 goals in 43 U.S. games (and a team-leading 19 in 2012), the 23-year-old Morgan has the potential to be a Mia Hamm-type figure in this sport.
Not that we should forget Wambach, whose 139th U.S. goal put her within 19 of Hamm's all-time-record 158 international goals. Wambach scored against France with a header off a corner kick in last year's World Cup semifinals, and everyone knew the ball was going to Wambach again on Megan Rapinoe's corner in the first half. But it didn't matter. Wambach is ruthless in the box, and France had nobody to contain her.
"Anytimes Abby scores, I'm like, how are there not 20 girls on her?" said Rapinoe. "But that's why she's the best at that."
Wambach's strike started the U.S. rally, and Rapinoe played a big role in the second half, providing two terrific passes that led to goals. The first, a deft touch that few players from any country would have made, found Lloyd in space for her game-winner. The second split the French defense to spring Tobin Heath, whose cross made its way to Morgan on the back post for the final goal.
Was it a perfect opening game? Well, no. The U.S. defense struggled early and gave up two goals before tightening things up. But all things considered, scoring four unanswered goals against your toughest group opponent is a good night's work.
"We took three points after being down 2-0 in the first 15 minutes," said Rapinoe. "I think that's something to hold our head up about."