A little more than a month prior to the Olympics, the U.S. women’s national team tried to mimic the competition’s cadence with its Summer Series. The level of opposition—Portugal, Jamaica, Nigeria—may not have provided a proper competitive dress rehearsal, but the match schedule and weather conditions in Texas were meant to prepare the U.S. for what would be waiting in Japan.
As it turns out, the more apt preparation may have taken place a couple of months earlier. The U.S. may have salvaged a 1–1 draw vs. Sweden in an April 10 friendly in Stockholm, but it was clearly second-best on the day. It was a match that served as a wake-up call but was also widely welcomed by U.S. players and personnel. They needed to see what required work and they needed a proper challenge before the matches started to count. Three days later, they responded with a win in France that was never in doubt, and all seemed well again.
Following the shocking 3–0 defeat to Sweden in Wednesday’s Olympic opener, the U.S. response, again, was solid though perhaps not as spectacular.
A comfortable 6–1 win over New Zealand at Saitama Stadium, with First Lady Jill Biden among the few in attendance, has put the U.S. back on course and at least calmed any sense of impending doom. Sweden beat Australia 4–2 in the group’s earlier match on Saturday, all but wrapping up first place and a more favorable knockout path, and it leaves the U.S.’s group finale vs. Sam Kerr & Co. to determine which of the two is most likely to finish in second.
Rose Lavelle and Lindsey Horan scored in the opening half—which also included four disallowed U.S. goals on offside calls—and while New Zealand had a couple of close calls that will leave manager Vlatko Andonovski desiring an approach that’s a bit tighter, the openness of the match clearly played into the U.S.’s hands and allowed for an energetic release.
Andonovski made five changes to his starting lineup—squad rotation in a tournament as condensed as this was always expected—with Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, Julie Ertz, Tierna Davidson and Emily Sonnett taking the places held by Christen Press, Alex Morgan, Sam Mewis, Becky Sauerbrunn and Kelley O’Hara.
O’Hara, Kristie Mewis and Adrianna Franch were omitted from the 18 altogether, with Catarina Macario, Casey Krueger and Jane Campbell being elevated to the matchday squad.
The U.S. opened the 2016 Olympics vs. New Zealand, comfortably winning 2–0, and it appeared to be more of the same Saturday with the U.S on the front foot from the opening whistle. The best early chance actually fell to the Football Ferns, though, with Hannah Wilkinson curling a chance from the edge of the box that forced Alyssa Naeher into a diving save in the seventh minute.
A couple of minutes later, Lavelle opened the scoring. This group, attacking in the open field, is a scary proposition, and the opportunities for that vs. Sweden were minimal at best. New Zealand, ranked 22nd in the world, doesn’t quite possess the same capability of suffocating an opponent as the Swedes, and it showed, with Tobin Heath playing Lavelle into space before she delivered a fine finish inside the near post.
What followed was rather comical, with Lloyd, Heath, Rapinoe and Horan all having goals disallowed for offside calls. What came after that wasn’t as funny from a U.S. standpoint. The open nature of the game did leave the U.S. a bit susceptible in the back, and Wilkinson nearly made the Americans pay after beating Abby Dahlkemper to a header in the box. Her effort curled just wide of the post in the 43rd minute, and when Horan scored off a set-piece routing a couple of minutes later, that was effectively that. The result was sealed in the 63rd minute when Abby Erceg headed into her own goal when defending a header from Lloyd—though New Zealand did spoil the clean sheet on Betsy Hassett’s 72nd-minute finish, which was made possible by a Dahlkemper error in the back.
Press’s 80th-minute goal, Morgan’s in the 88th and an own goal in stoppage time restored the more comfortable advantage and ensured the U.S. goes into its group finale with a higher goal differential than Australia.
"I don’t remember this team losing 3–0 in recent history so it is a bit of a shock but everyone is positive,” Andonovski said after the Sweden loss. “We still have games ahead of us. We have got to bounce back. We have to forget this game and focus on the next one.”
The focus was mostly there, and now the question is whether it can be harnessed to a greater degree. Australia, which led Sweden 2–1 at one point Saturday, is likely to be a bit more clinical if the U.S. grants the same opportunities to the Matildas as it did to the Football Ferns. Coached by former U.S. manager Tom Sermanni, New Zealand fell to Australia 2–1 in their opener, which was their first match since March 2020 due to the effects of the pandemic. Never mind the talent gap, New Zealand was playing from behind in other intangible facets as well. From here on out it’s a crescendo in the level of opposition, and the kind of mistakes made both Wednesday and Saturday can’t be tolerated. Dahlkemper, in particular, has played incredibly out of character, and world-class forwards beckon on the horizon.
By virtue of the loss to Sweden, the U.S. put itself in position to head to the more difficult side of the bracket. The wild 3–3 draw between the Netherlands and Brazil on Saturday should put the U.S. and the Dutch on course for a 2019 Women’s World Cup final rematch in the quarterfinals, should the group finales go as most would anticipate. The Netherlands and Brazil are both on four points and both play opponents they should beat handily on the last day of group play; as long as Brazil doesn’t make up the goal-differential deficit, it’ll take second. The U.S., if it finishes second in Group G, would face the winner of their group.
From a micro perspective, the U.S. will take this result. Ertz playing the entirety of the match and doing so with her trademark level of dominance after making her first appearance in two months vs. Sweden is a clear plus and perhaps has the biggest long-term implication. Her absence from the start vs. Sweden led to a domino effect all over the field, such is her importance to this team. Goals off the bench for Press and Morgan will build confidence should they be restored to the starting XI, and a lopsided result means just a draw vs. Australia would be good enough for second in the group. But from the macro outlook, there’s still some growing into this tournament and fine-tuning to do. At the very least, things have stabilized after a jolt to the system.
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