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Aug 6, 2008

U.S. falters badly in Olympic opener

Apparently, there is such a thing as post-Wambach traumatic stress syndrome, as the U.S. women's soccer team lost 2-0 to Norway in the Olympics on Wednesday. The U.S. gave up the two goals less than four minutes into the preliminary-round game.

Was this a nightmarish replay of U.S.-Brazil from the 2007 World Cup? No, but it wasn't too far off the mark in the lowlight reel of disastrous performances by the American squad.

The U.S. had the opening kickoff on a steamy night in the Qinhuangdao Sports Center Stadium, but it might as well have started the game in its defensive third of the field.

After Norway earned a dangerous throw-in 50 seconds into the game, U.S. captain Christie Rampone headed a weak ball to the feet of Norway's Gunhild Folstad, who chipped the ball toward Norwegian striker Leni Larsen Kaurin as she dueled with Lori Chalupny. Chalupny was taken down after a violent collision with goalkeeper Hope Solo, and Kaurin muscled a header into the open goal.

"That's the life of a goalkeeper," Solo said. "It's about decisions. It was a pretty well-placed ball where I was forced to make a decision, come or go. I came and she beat me to it."

The Norwegians couldn't have timed it more perfectly: Goal No. 1 came exactly at the one-minute mark. But the opening barrage wasn't over yet. Two minutes later, the Norwegians rode the momentum to capture a second tally.

If the first goal wasn't bad enough, the second should not have happened. Veteran defender Kate Markgraf made an uncharacteristically poor error in judgment by failing to execute the most basic defensive tenet: look up. Even the back line, the most experienced division of the team, has shown it is not entirely ready to play coach Pia Sundhage's possession game under pressure.

U.S. women's schedule
U.S. vs. Japan
Saturday
Qinhuangdao, China
5 a.m. ET

U.S. vs. New Zealand
Tuesday
Qinhuangdao, China
7:45 a.m. ET

Sundhage's intense focus on ball control and creativity might have backfired for the U.S. against Norway, simply because the American players don't possess the same innate awareness and ball skills as other European teams. And Abby Wambach (out with a broken leg) wasn't there to turn poor passes into game-winners, powering through defenses like no other player can.

Norway's superb opening play most likely shattered the record for the fastest two goals scored against the U.S. women's team. Clearly shaken, the U.S struggled to put together a string of solid passes, finding some semblance of rhythm only in the final 10 minutes of the match.

To make matters worse, Chalupny came out of the game in the 15th minute; the defensive stalwart apparently was shaken from the hard knock she received from Solo earlier. Substitute and World Cup veteran Stephanie Cox came in at right back but looked unsure of herself up until the 80th minute, when she was replaced by first-time Olympian Tobin Heath. Heath came in for an offensive spark -- a gesture that proved far too little, too late.

Unfortunately, Sundhage's substitution plan didn't pan out. Angela Hucles, who started in place of Wambach, played gallantly but couldn't generate the playmaking magic she's shown in recent exhibition games. In addition, late substitute Amy Rodriguez, for all her speed and quickness with the ball, wasn't able to convert for the U.S.

The U.S. regressed to old habits, ineffectively spraying balls into Norway's defensive half, out of blind faith that striker Natasha Kai would run onto them. The Americans squandered 11 opportunities on goal.

Looking ahead, Sundhage should consider starting Amy Rodriguez up top with Natasha Kai, using Angela Hucles for the role of power-sub. If the scoring drought continues, Heather O'Reilly and Lindsay Tarpley might prove to be valuable resources on attack if they can focus solely on finding the back of the net. If Aly Wagner, who has 120-plus caps and 41 career assists, can come in for any of the midfielders, her experience and ability to play the final pass will provide a huge boost for the team's offensive production.

Frankly, Norway's creative trio of Larsen Kaurin, Melissa Wiik and captain Solveig Gulbrandsen put the U.S. offense to shame.

"Norway are great competitors and we have a lot of respect for them," Rampone said. "It was just unfortunate that they got two early goals on us. Our team bounced back and there were some good moments. We just have to take the positives, and lucky for us it was the first game."

Sundhage looked distressed during the match, but she took her first loss as the U.S. women's soccer coach in stride, maintaining her poise and optimism. "This was a crazy game with us giving up two goals at the beginning of the game, but then we bounced back," Sundhage said in a U.S. soccer press release. "In the second half, we made some tactical changes, tried three in the back, and tried certain things. The effort of the players is the reason we will be successful, and we still have a chance to win a gold medal."

The Yanks will have to fight an uphill battle from here, even against lesser teams Japan and New Zealand. The good news? The top two squads advance to the quarterfinals from group play.

Japan and New Zealand opened with a 2-2 draw, leaving the United States with a bit more wiggle room to stage a comeback. If the haze of shock wears off in China for the U.S. women, they'll regroup under motivational leader Sundhage against Japan on Saturday.

U.S. player ratings (scale 1-10):

Hope Solo, 6 -- After two goals got past her (both would have been difficult saves), Solo clamped down on Norway's ever-threatening counterattacks.

Kate Markgraf, 5 -- Although the seasoned veteran made a major flub, failing to look up on the pass-back option, Markgraf rebounded well. She hit a terrific screamer just over the crossbar that sent goalkeeper Erika Skarboe diving.

Christie Rampone, 8 -- Rampone's speed, precise tackling and high-pressure defending kept the back four unit together despite an awful start. She was one of the few defenders who effectively passed to feet.

Lori Chalupny, 5 -- Chalupny caught a bit of an unlucky break on the first goal, considering she was all over Leni Larsen Kaurin. Then she left the game early.

Heather Mitts, 6 -- She played solid defense, and her makeup speed helped her track back on Norway's counterattacks on more than one occasion. There's no doubt she's back to full strength.

Lindsay Tarpley, 5 -- Other than some nice give-and-gos on the wing, and a terrific run to the end line for a pass in front of the goal (which should have been finished by her teammates), Tarpley didn't make much of an impact.

Shannon Boxx, 5 -- Perhaps the most inconsistent player of the match, Boxx had some great plays and shots on goal but didn't utilize her size on set plays as well as she has in the past.

Carli Lloyd, 4 -- Even though the effort was there, Lloyd consistently gave the ball away. She tried to do too much in too little space.

Heather O'Reilly, 6 -- O'Reilly was the workhorse of the team, and she effectively brought the ball up the wings for several crossing opportunities.

Angela Hucles, 4 -- Hucles struggled to possess the ball throughout the game and couldn't seem to find her comfort zone as a starter up top.

Natasha Kai, 5 -- Played with a lot of heart, but needs to do a better job demanding the ball from her teammates. Finishing from her end is a must, with Wambach out.

Substitutes

Stephanie Cox, 3 -- Probably the slowest defender of the bunch, Cox seemed incapable of clearing the ball in the first half. Sundhage should think twice about substituting Cox (a last-minute addition to the Olympic roster) next game.

Tobin Heath, 4 -- Didn't do much in the limited time she was in. Heath got pushed off the ball too easily on her attacking runs.

Amy Rodriguez, 5 -- She had the best performance of all the subs, showing good ball control and smart passing. The crush of Norwegian defenders didn't give her a chance to utilize her speed.

Lindsey Dolich is a contributor to ESPN The Magazine and covers the U.S. women's national team for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at soccerdols@gmail.com.

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