U.S. breathes easier after win against Japan
The U.S. women's Olympic team can take a collective sigh of relief -- for now. The day after the opening ceremonies pulverized the Beijing night sky, the United States came out on Saturday with a full arsenal of its own against Japan in Qinhuangdao Olympic Sports Center, winning 1-0 to move to 1-1-0 in group play.
While the U.S. offense might not have been quite as flawlessly executed as the fireworks above the Bird's Nest, the attacking corps gutted out a 16-shot performance, although only six made it on frame.
The crippling defeat against Norway three days earlier that sent the No. 1 team scratching rock bottom (literally, the team was last in group play standings), left the U.S. with no choice but to go in with a do-or-die attitude.
The U.S. went up 1-0 in the 27th minute after defender Stephanie Cox sent a curving cross that skittered through Japan's box to a wide-open Carli Lloyd, who slammed home the half-volley for the lone tally of the game. Cox started in place of starter Lori Chalupny, who was ruled ineligible to play as a precaution after a head injury, and did well to execute coach Pia Sundhage's strategy of getting the defensive flanks more involved in the attack.
"It was a great goal from Carli. I thought she combined extremely well with Shannon Boxx in the center of the pitch today, as did Amy Rodriguez and Heather O'Reilly up front," Sundhage said in a FIFA news release. "We caused Japan's defense problems, and I thought we looked solid in the back too."
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Rodriguez, Lloyd and Boxx nearly willed the ball into the back of Japan's net on several other occasions, but the timing and execution was not always there. The Americans forced nine corners, but must find other creative outlets without Abby Wambach's aerial presence; the team managed to redirect only a handful of weak headers that sprayed high and wide.
Despite Lloyd's encouraging finish, the United States still needs to translate more shots into goals. If Rodriguez acclimates herself to a newly won starting position, she'll start unloading goals on slow-footed teams.
Japan kept the U.S. defense on edge the entire game, forcing keeper Hope Solo to pull out an acrobatic save or two. Midfielders Homare Sawa and Aya Miyama were left wide open several times, something the U.S. cannot afford to do against more experienced teams. As much improvement as the back four made, there were still an alarmingly high number of passing errors made in the American's defensive third.
"The fact is that the U.S. took their chances today and we didn't. We still have a chance to get through the next round," Japan coach Norio Sasaki said in a FIFA.com report.
Sundhage's decision to start Rodriguez in place of Natasha Kai paid off, as the young striker's speed and ball control left even the Japanese defense sluggish by comparison. Substitute Tobin Heath did well to surprise Japan with her crafty ball skills, and Sundhage should consider plugging her earlier into future games.
"It was a team performance, and I'm very happy with it, as well as the result," Sundhage said. "You make your own luck in football, and that's what happened today."
U.S. player ratings (scale 1-10):
Hope Solo, 9 -- Solo earned a well-deserved first Olympic shutout, keeping the U.S. in the black with a terrific tip-out save on Homare Sawa's shot.
Christie Rampone, 8 -- A true team player who recovered on several dangerous Japanese breakaways, Rampone played one of the cleanest games of the U.S. squad members.
Kate Markgraf, 6 -- Markgraf kept the defense organized, but her anticipation looked a little off when it came to head-to-head matchups.
Heather Mitts, 7 -- Another solid game from Mitts, who played tight defense. Had several key tackles and had two good looks on offense -- including one from 20 yards out that nearly got by keeper Miho Fukumoto.
Stephanie Cox, 6 -- She had a marked improvement from her first Olympic match, playing some great long balls to Amy Rodriguez and earning an assist on the U.S.'s only goal after taking the offensive initiative on the wing. However, she left far too many openings for the Japanese on her side of the pitch.
Lindsay Tarpley, 6 -- She was largely invisible in the game, save for a few important plays. She did start the attack that cumulated in a goal, but overall she struggled to connect with the rest of the midfield.
Carli Lloyd, 8 -- The attacking midfielder stole the show, putting the United States on the Olympic scoreboard with a long-range rocket to the top-left corner of the goal. Lloyd also made some key defensive stops to initiate several counterattacks.
Shannon Boxx, 8 -- The physical midfielder stepped up her game against Japan, playing smart, quick balls and connecting with Lloyd for a much-improved midfield dynamic. She had a handful of great shots, but needs to play a more active role on corner kicks.
Heather O'Reilly, 8 -- Yet another high-energy game from O'Reilly, who penetrated Japan's defense with some of the best runs of the game with the ball. She often drew two defenders at a time, doing well to open up the field for her teammates.
Angela Hucles, 6 -- Didn't provide much support up top for Rodriguez other than a few nice through balls. Still has yet to put up a convincing performance as a starting forward.
Amy Rodriguez, 9 -- She attacked the goal relentlessly, and her speed single-handedly broke down Japan's defense on more than one occasion. Rodriguez showed great poise and intelligence with the ball, but needs to work on her one-on-one finishing.
Tobin Heath, 7 -- Heath showed good confidence on the ball and combined well with Lloyd and Boxx. She needs to show a bit more defensive awareness; she lost the ball a couple of times with the clocking ticking.
Rachel Buehler, 7 -- Didn't see much action, but did well to poke the ball out of danger when it came her way.
Natasha Kai, NA -- Kai came on in the 85th minute, but too late to make an impact. She made a nice curving run to set herself up for a breakaway in the 88th minute, but couldn't convert on a near-post shot after dribbling into the box.
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 email@example.com.