U.S. overcomes blazing Brazilians
If ever there was a score that didn't typify a 90-minute soccer match, it was the 2-0 victory earned by the U.S. over Brazil on Saturday.
For the first half of this Olympic Group G round-robin match, the Brazilian women took it to the Americans in the fashion that the men would be expected to when playing Bruce Arena's side.
They were creative, physical, unselfish, attack-minded and fearless, which made the U.S. sit back on its heels and ride out the storm - a position the Yanks have very rarely been in since the birth of the National Team back in 1985.
Fortunately for the U.S., Brazil was unable to finish on any of its numerous chances in the first half, and seemed to take its foot off the pedal in the second half with thoughts of a tie -- and the resulting one point -- on the mind. And once Mia Hamm converted on a penalty kick in the 58th minute after hardly creating any scoring opportunities beforehand, the wind seemed to come out of their sails.
Despite not playing well against Brazil for most of the match, which followed a lackluster performance in the 3-0 victory against an inexperienced Greek side on Wednesday, April Heinrichs' side has two wins under its belt and has yet to be scored upon going into the third and final group match against Australia on Tuesday.
Ultimately, that's all that matters, as style points are not awarded in this sport.
Here are five observations from the match:
1. Briana Scurry came up huge
During the first half when Brazil was able to create several goal-scoring opportunities, the former Atlanta Beat star was up to the challenge. Marta's bending free kick from 19 yards out in the 30th minute might have fooled many a goalkeeper, but Scurry was able to move to her left and make the save look easy, despite being partially blinded by the five-man wall she assembled in front of her.
The 32-year-old veteran also made key stops on a hard left-footed shot from Marta in the 33rd minute, when she held her ground despite having to face a shot from point-blank range, as well as during a play at the end of the first half when she flew off her line and broke up a potential breakaway by making a sliding save of a ball played behind the U.S. defense.
There's no secret why Scurry has been the starting goalkeeper for the U.S. for all but two years -- 2000 and 2001 -- since bursting on the scene in 1994 as a 22-year-old out of the University of Massachusetts.
2. If the WUSA ever returns, prepare to see plenty of Brazilians
Hopefully, at least.
Once upon a time the Brazilian team consisted of Sissi, a fleet-footed midfield maestro with one of the most accurate shots ever seen in the women's game, and a bunch of athletes who hardly carried on the Brazilian samba tradition of playing the "Beautiful Game. That's hardly the case anymore, though.
Led by the brilliant play of 18-year-old Marta, Brazil attacked from all angles against the U.S. defense. Whether it was the speed of Cristiane as the defense-stretching striker, the creative touches of Formiga, the shiftiness of Elaine, or the hard-nosed defending of Monica, Brazil showcased several of its players who now have to be included amongst the world's best at their respective positions.
Same goes for centerback Juliana, as well, who resembled a younger Carla Overbeck with the way she organized her defense and kept her composure no matter how much time and space she was given on the ball.
The most electrifying moment of the match came in the 31st minute after a series where Brazil knocked the ball around between six different players in their attacking third.
When it appeared the U.S. had won back the ball and were on a quick counterattack, Formiga won a hard tackle and sped down the left side of the penalty box. After halting her run and drawing in U.S. right back Christie Rampone, she deftly back-heeled the ball to Rosana on an overlap. Her quick cross to the back post beat Scurry and gave Cristiane an open shot at the goal, which was then knocked off the post and cleared seconds later. It was the best chance of the match for Brazil.
Marta, a quick left-footed midfielder who plays for Umea in Sweden, lived up to her pre-tournament billing as a game-changing type of player that can beat multiple players on the run.
Should the WUSA rise up from the ashes and begin play in 2006, Marta will undoubtedly be one of the most sought-after international players along with Sweden's striker tandem of Hanna Ljungberg and Victoria Svensson, and German striker Birgit Prinz.
3. Officials are lucky it didn't get out of hand
In a match where Heinrichs had told CNBC's analyst and Ohio State women's soccer coach Lori Walker that her team would have to "bring your hard hats and hammers" against the physical Brazilians, the officials should have been on top of it from the start of the game.
Instead, too much was let go, which only made the match get nastier as it rolled on. The best example of that was in the 20th minute when Shannon Boxx made a hard tackle with her studs up on Juliana. The call was made, but no card was given. Forget yellow, Boxx is fortunate she wasn't tossed from the match with a red card.
Moments later, Formiga pulled herself around Kristine Lilly and kicked her from behind on a blatant takedown foul. Again, the foul was called, but without issuing a caution.
Unfortunately for the Americans, Abby Wambach received a yellow card for a foul much less severe, and will now have to miss the team's next game since it's her second offense of the tournament.
4. Wambach shows what she's made of
In a match where she was not having success, as well as getting beat up by Monica on every 50-50 ball, the 5-foot-11 striker could have easily lost her head once she received a yellow card early on in the second half.
Rather than sulk or show a loss of confidence because her touch had been off and she wasn't getting to balls she normally beats defenders to, Wambach bided her time until the defense opened up. When it did, last year's U.S. Female Athlete of the Year sprung to life, splitting two defenders on the dribble before unleashing a hard shot with her left foot into the back of the net to help seal the 2-0 victory.
It was the type of classic goal that we see players such as Ronaldo, Thierry Henry and Raul typically score after being rather invisible for most of the match. It's a trait that separates the good strikers from the special strikers - a stratosphere that Wambach is now a part of.
5. Heinrichs shows her confidence in O'Reilly
Substituting in Heather O'Reilly for Lilly in the 70th minute was a very telling move. Up only 1-0 at the time in a dogfight of a match, it was the most pressure-packed situation the 19-year-old has ever been put into, which shows a lot about what Heinrichs thinks of the University of North Carolina sophomore. And coming on for Lilly, who is the fittest player on the team even at 33, hammered that point home.
With the type of speed and ability to get to the goal that O'Reilly has, it's hard to imagine that she won't help the attack if summoned again, whether it's as a starter against Australia now that Wambach is out or in another appearance off the bench.
But whatever impact the 19-year-old striker has on this tournament going forward, the fact that she's gained experience in a competition such as the Olympics will be vital to this group going forward considering that O'Reilly is likely to take over as Wambach's partner up front once Hamm retires.
Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org