Ready for New Zealand
A strong tournament thus far has the U.S. women ready for the knockouts
The life of a prohibitive favorite is supposed to be difficult as opponents have little to lose and usually offer up their A-game as a consequence. But three matches into the Olympic women's soccer tournament, the U.S. has done just about everything possible to justify the pre-tournament predictions of gold-medal glory. As such, Pia Sundhage's side will look to continue this trend on Friday with a quarterfinal tilt against New Zealand.
Granted, there has been the occasional hiccup. Take the nightmarish first 14 minutes of the group stage opener against France, a stretch in which the Americans conceded two preventable goals.
But since then, the U.S. has largely had things its own way. The defense has tightened up while the attack has produced goals aplenty, so much so that there's an impulse to think that Sundhage is merely using the same playbook that got the Americans to last summer's World Cup final. Without question, the team's mentality remains as iron-clad as ever, but there have been some important changes since that penalty shootout loss to Japan.
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The most obvious alteration brought forward Alex Morgan into the starting lineup alongside Abby Wambach, a switch that goes beyond her finishing ability. Sundhage has long aimed to make the U.S. a more possession-oriented side, but oftentimes the inability of the U.S. to stretch defenses made it easier for teams to clog the midfield and stymie the team's short-passing intentions. The addition of Morgan has changed that.
"I think Sundhage is playing the perfect combination of the direct and indirect game," said University of North Carolina women's head coach Anson Dorrance, who led the U.S. to victory at the 1991 World Cup. "I think last summer too much of the U.S. game was indirect, like she wanted to prove that she should play like Barcelona. But when you've got a player like Morgan, you've got to play direct balls in behind the defense for her, even if you don't end up winning Coach of the Year as a result. So I think the evolution of our team now is that we're becoming a weapon of destruction and victory, and we have the perfect balance. We can hold it when we need to, and go direct when we have to, and I think that's the perfect way to be."
There have been improvements at the back as well, although they've been more subtle in that the defending higher up the field from U.S. forwards and midfielders has been more consistent. This was evident against Colombia when Morgan won the ball in the attacking third and promptly set up Megan Rapinoe for the game's first goal. Such efforts have helped to cover for injured holding midfielder Shannon Boxx, who suffered a hamstring injury just 17 minutes into the game against France. The play of Carli Lloyd has gone a long way toward easing the impact of Boxx's absence -- with Dorrance lauding the midfielder for playing like a "defensive barracuda" -- but she hasn't been alone.
"The U.S. midfield right now, defensively, is light years ahead of where they were last summer," Dorrance said. "They're taking pride in their tackling now. In the old days what would happen is when the other team would win the ball, and they would just walk right through our front line and walk right through our midfield. And then our defense would have to do all the work with obviously a brilliant goalkeeper. Now what I'm seeing is Alex Morgan taking a piece out of teams she's playing against, and Wambach has always played with pride. And with the rest of the midfield, they're all working [defensively]."
Such tenacity has helped protect a back line that has looked vulnerable at times. Kelley O'Hara -- who has only been playing left back since the start of the year after spending all of her career in attacking positions -- has improved steadily since the start of the tournament. Yet she will still be tested often in the knockout phase, especially in terms of her one-on-one defending. Christie Rampone had some uncharacteristic wobbles against France and will bear watching, as well.
On offense, the U.S. will also look to get Lauren Cheney a bit more on track. The UCLA product has been on the receiving end of some heavy challenges that have nullified her impact, yet the hope is that the U.S. will see more of her penetrating passes moving forward -- like the one that led to Abby Wambach's goal against North Korea on Monday.
For these reasons, it is far too early for any kind of Olympic coronation. While the U.S. will enter Friday's match as the heavy favorite against New Zealand, it should be noted that the Kiwis, despite losing to both Great Britain and Brazil, played both teams tough and have shown an increased ability to keep possession.
"New Zealand will be more athletic than Colombia and North Korea, and they're feisty," said former U.S. manager Tony DiCicco, who managed the U.S. to another World Cup win in 1995. "They've got a couple of players, like Rosie White up top, who if you give them a chance can be dangerous."
The Kiwis' style will test the U.S., as well. Outside backs Ria Percival and Ali Riley both continuously look to bomb forward, the better to deliver service to the likes of White, Sarah Gregorius and Hannah Wilkinson, who is back from suspension. Defensively, the Ferns have been tough to break down, although they have shown some weakness on set pieces, a vulnerability that the U.S. will no doubt look to exploit.
Yet it's from the run of play where the U.S. will be counted on to do most of its damage. There, it's expected that Morgan and Wambach, along with the at-times-breathtaking midfield play of Rapinoe and Lloyd, will generate enough offense to overwhelm any opponent.
"That's why the U.S. didn't panic against France," DiCicco said. "They knew they could score goals and they came back and did it. They've got good leadership. Rampone is like Mother Teresa back there, but then they've got Wambach who is kind of the emotional leader. She kind of puts them on her back."
If all goes according to plan on Friday, a semifinal tilt against the winner of the Great Britain/Canada quarterfinal will take place three days later. Should they make it, the Americans can then show if they are able to meet the lofty expectations placed upon them.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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