Job done for the U.S.
Attacking misfires against New Zealand didn't matter thanks to strong defense
The U.S. women's national team started its Olympic adventure by overwhelming teams with its attack. Now the Americans are getting it done with defense and it proved a winning formula in defeating New Zealand 2-0 in Friday's quarterfinal at Newcastle's St. James' Park.
Abby Wambach scored the game's first goal midway through the first half -- her fourth goal in as many games -- and substitute Sydney Leroux killed off the match with a tally in the 87th minute. Yet the defensive effort carried the day. The U.S. forwards effectively harassed the New Zealand back line and the midfield clogged the passing lanes. On the rare occasions when the U.S. back line was tested, it held firm, making goalkeeper Hope Solo's day relatively incident free. Such efforts have a resulted in an impressive shutout streak: 346 minutes and counting.
U.S. manager Pia Sundhage made just one change from the team that beat North Korea 1-0 in the final group game, with Tobin Heath preferred over Heather O'Reilly. Heath slid into the left side of midfield with Megan Rapinoe moving over to the opposite flank.
For New Zealand coach Tony Readings, Hannah Wilkinson returned from suspension and was preferred over Rosie White up top while Kirsty Yallop entered the lineup for Annalie Longo.
The U.S. began the match pressing New Zealand all over the field and had plenty of success forcing turnovers in the Kiwis' half. The first half-chance fell to New Zealand, however: Wilkinson won a free kick near the top of the box in the second minute but Yallop's free kick was deflected by the wall and into the arms of Solo.
The Americans soon seized the initiative. A long pass from Kelley O'Hara in the 10th minute eluded New Zealand defender Abby Erceg, creating a clear breakaway for Morgan. The U.S. forward managed to get past goalkeeper Jenny Bindon but dragged her shot wide of the far post. Wambach then missed a glorious chance seven minutes later when she failed to hit the target from close range after good work from Lauren Cheney and Rapinoe.
But just when it seemed like it might be one of those days in front of goal for the U.S., the gold medal favorites broke through in the 27th minute. Rachel Buehler's long ball picked out Morgan on the left flank and, after juking defender Rebecca Smith, Morgan hammered a low pass to the far post that was turned in by Wambach, sparking a series of cartwheels by the U.S. players.
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The flow of the match was such that New Zealand had some promising moments in the attacking half, but the U.S. back line limited the Kiwis to a few speculative shots from distance that were easily handled by Solo.
All of which left the Americans to carve out the best opportunities; in particular, Cheney was having more success linking up with her teammates than she did against North Korea. One opportunity in the 37th minute gave Morgan a brief opening, but her shot was deflected out for a corner.
The U.S. ratcheted up the defensive pressure even more to start the second half in a bid to put the game away. Yet despite Morgan getting a number of chances, the second goal was long in arriving. The U.S. forward snuffed out an attempted clearance from Erceg in the 48th minute and broke in alone on goal, only to put her shot into the side netting. Morgan then had a penalty appeal turned down a minute later when she appeared to be bundled over by Smith, but referee Jessica Di Iorio waved play on.
The steady flow of chances continued for Morgan, but Bindon was off her line quickly to save the U.S. forward's shot from close range in the 63rd minute. Incredibly, the space behind the New Zealand defense remained there for the Americans to exploit and Morgan was sprung on another breakaway in the 73rd minute, only to be upended by Bindon outside the box after the American striker had rounded the keeper. Referee Di Iorio blew her whistle; not for a foul, but for a drop ball so both players could receive medical attention. (Bindon in particular looked rattled, catching Morgan's knee in the face at full speed.)
It was at this point that New Zealand enjoyed its best spell of the match. Left back Ali Riley was effective coming forward, though her crosses were wasted by a lack of numbers in the box. The Kiwis then had a fair shout for a penalty in the 83rd minute when Betsy Hassett went down under pressure from O'Hara and Lloyd, but Di Iorio once again wasn't impressed enough to point to the spot.
With the match in danger of slipping away, Sundhage brought on O'Reilly for the tiring Rapinoe in the 71st minute and later swapped Leroux for Morgan. The latter switch proved critical. Taking a long pass from Heath in the 87th minute, Leroux showed off her pace and power in riding a challenge from Smith and then slotted her shot through the legs of Bindon to seal the match.
The U.S. next will face the winner of the quarterfinal between Great Britain and Canada, though it's likely that Sundhage will be concerned more about her own team than the opponent. Last summer, the U.S. conversion rate in front of goal left much to be desired. Making Morgan into a permanent starter seemed to have cured that, but Friday's match showed a return to that worrying trait.
But if the U.S. team from front to back continues to defend the way it has these last three games, one goal -- or in this case two -- should be more than enough to get the results needed to ultimately claim gold.
Player ratings: (1-10, 10=best)
G: Hope Solo, 6 -- Another easy day at the office, one made easier by her capable handling and good positioning. Still looked a bit hesitant coming off her line at times, though.
D: Kelley O'Hara, 6.5 -- Another solid performance as her defending continues to improve. Her decision-making on when to stay and when to challenge for loose balls is getting better as well.
D: Rachel Buehler, 7 -- Looks much more composed than a year ago on both sides of the ball. She was a rock in the back and her long pass helped set up the first goal.
D: Christie Rampone, 7 -- Used her pace to good effect to help snuff out some semi-dangerous opportunities and even found time to get forward.
D: Amy LePeilbet, 6.5 -- Her passing out of the back was suspect at times but she continued to lock down her side with some stellar one-on-one defending. Was also a valuable presence in the air.
M: Tobin Heath, 7 -- Provided some excellent link-up play in the attacking half as well as some good defensive cover for O'Hara when needed. Her late assist to Leroux helped ice the game.
M: Carli Lloyd, 6 -- Blew hot and cold with her passes -- although she started to find the range more late -- but no complaints about her defense and work rate.
M: Lauren Cheney, 6.5 -- Probably her most complete game of the tournament on both sides of the ball. Was able to find open spaces and connect on her passes more consistently. She tracked back effectively on defense.
M: Megan Rapinoe, 6.5 -- Good bounce-back game after a subdued performance against North Korea. Was effective in central positions as well as out wide and created a great scoring opportunity that was squandered. Faded slightly in the second half and was subbed in the 71st minute.
F: Abby Wambach, 6 -- Should have done better with an early chance but was perfectly positioned to open the scoring via Morgan's pass. Provided some unsung work defending on set pieces.
F: Alex Morgan, 5 -- A mixed bag. Her finishing was uncharacteristically off but she did provide the killer assist for Wambach's first goal. Was also an absolute menace with her defensive pressure.
M: Heather O'Reilly, 5.5 -- Made some smart decisions on the ball in terms of when to pull the ball back but squandered a good chance late with a heavy first touch.
F: Sydney Leroux, 8 -- Showed tremendous speed and strength in scoring her goal and while she was a bit fortunate that Bindon didn't do better on the shot, the late tally did plenty to settle U.S. nerves.
M: Amy Rodriguez, NR -- Came on late for Cheney.
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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