U.S. off to strong World Cup start
DRESDEN, Germany -- Great players find a way to shake off subpar spells of soccer and recover to make a difference. So it proved for the U.S. and, especially, Lauren Cheney and Rachel Buehler, who scored in the second half to give the U.S. a 2-0 victory over North Korea in its opening game of the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup.
Before the goals, the U.S. had looked nothing like the No. 1-ranked team in the world, and Cheney's play was shaky in the opening 45 minutes. But that all changed in the 54th minute. After solid work from Abby Wambach on the left wing, Cheney's perfectly placed header beat North Korea goalkeeper Hong Myong Hui, settling American nerves in the process.
Buehler had some unsteady moments of her own in the first half, but scored off a goalmouth scramble in the 76th minute.
The U.S. started out brightly enough and created some solid opportunities only to be let down by some weak finishing. Cheney and Carli Lloyd had outstanding chances in front of goal, but could only succeed in shooting straight at Hong.
But with Lloyd and midfield counterpart Shannon Boxx struggling to get a grip on the game, North Korea gradually gained control. In particular, the right wide duo of Kim Su Gyong and Song Jong Sun began having their way with defender Amy LePeilbet and Cheney. Kim stung the palms of goalkeeper Hope Solo with a shot in the 34th minute, and Song's teasing low cross somehow evaded everyone four minutes later.
The U.S. climbed back into the game a bit through the industry of Amy Rodriguez, but much of her good work was undone by some passing that was just inches off. That said, the halftime whistle came as a relief for the Americans, whose defense was looking wobbly.
The U.S. started the second half on much firmer footing. And after struggling to find the range with her feet, Cheney used her head to redirect Wambach's cross to put the U.S. on top.
Wambach nearly doubled the Americans' advantage in the 66th minute, but her header from LePeilbet's cross went off Hong, struck the bar and was eventually cleared.
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The U.S. then got a valuable insurance tally through Buehler 10 minutes later. A cross from the right wing caromed off the bar. And with the ball pinballing around the North Korea penalty area, Buehler kept the play alive with a header; Lloyd did the same and played the ball back to Buehler, whose seeing-eye shot snuck inside the near post.
The U.S. largely played out the remaining minutes with composure, although North Korea did threaten with some long-range efforts, one of which saw Ri Ye Gyong graze the bar.
It could be argued that this was a result that flattered the U.S. to a degree, considering the upper hand North Korea enjoyed in the first half. Without question, the U.S. midfield will need to deliver more consistency in future matches, and some questions remain about the left back position. But it must also be said that it was the Americans who created the best chances, and on balance were deserving winners.
Player ratings (1-10, 10 = best)
G Hope Solo, 7: Solo wasn't called upon often, but was sharp when she needed to be. Her save against Kim was top-notch.
D Amy LePeilbet, 4: For a player who is supposedly a lockdown defender, LePeilbet struggled mightily to contain Kim and Song, was beaten to the byline more than once and only contributed occasionally to the attack. Recovered to have a much more composed second half.
D Rachel Buehler, 5.5: Misread a few plays and was lacking in her distribution, but shook all of that off with the clinching goal. She'll need to raise her game in future outings.
D Christie Rampone, 7: Wasn't always accurate with her clearances, but used her speed well to put out plenty of fires.
D Ali Krieger, 7: One of the few bright spots in the first half. Linked up well with O'Reilly, and while she was beaten on occasion, she always recovered well. Was also well-placed to have some vital clearances.
M Lauren Cheney, 6: Did little to justify Sundhage's decision to start her over Megan Rapinoe in the first half. Often caught in possession and only clogged space when she got forward. She made no mistake with her header, though. Even on a day of struggles, she made the play that counted.
Shannon Boxx, 4: Showed little composure on the ball as she was guilty of far too many giveaways in the first half. Started to climb back into the match with some solid tackles and raised her game after the break. Still a worrying performance.
Carli Lloyd, 5.5: Succeeded in spraying the ball wide to O'Reilly a few times, but slowly ceded control of the midfield to her North Korean opponents in the opening 45 minutes. Tried to dribble out of trouble too often and wasn't sharp with her finishing, either. Like many of her teammates, picked it up in the second half, and her diagonal ball to Wambach helped set up the first goal.
Heather O'Reilly, 6: Only complaint is that she didn't see enough of the ball. When she did get it, she was dangerous. Would like to see her get in wide areas a little more often when she is in possession.
F Abby Wambach, 6.5: Was fairly quiet early on, but that was due largely to the inability of the midfield to find her with passes. Her hold-up play was sharp and she teed up Lloyd for a great chance. Had the all-important cross on Cheney's goal, and was unlucky not to score herself.
F Amy Rodriguez, 6.5: Was active and bright for much of the first half, and used her speed to good effect. Only thing missing was the final pass, which undid much of her hard work. As active as she was, her exit for Morgan was a bit surprising.
F Alex Morgan, 6: Linked up well with Wambach and added some good energy to the U.S. attack.
M Megan Rapinoe, 6: Thought she had added a third goal for the U.S. when she knocked in what looked to be a rebound, but Hong was judged to have had possession and the tally was waived off.
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 email@example.com.