U.S. disposes of New Zealand to top Group G
The United States women's Olympic soccer team pulled off an astonishing turnaround by winning Group G after cruising to a 4-0 victory over New Zealand. The flurry of goals from the red, white and blue team helped the U.S. post six points with a 2-0-1 (W-T-L) record to advance to the quarterfinals. The Americans will play rival Canada for the fifth time in 2008.
The Americans got a major assist from Japan after the Nadeshiko completely dismantled former group leader Norway in a shocking 5-1 rout -- allowing the U.S. to seize the top seed over Norway on goal differential. Japan will face China in the quarterfinals, setting up a battle of neighboring countries on the United States' side of the bracket.
After allowing two goals in less than four minutes in the opening match against Norway, the U.S. earned a little bit of sweet karma in this match after midfielder Heather O'Reilly nailed a 30-yard shot just 40 seconds into the game. It was the fastest goal recorded in women's Olympic soccer history.
Following O'Reilly's lead, the U.S. continued to take 25- to 30-yard shots -- but with almost reckless abandon, as all the shots went high or wide. Coach Pia Sundhage needs to re-emphasize technique, as the U.S. women showed a tendency to rush bluntly struck balls that had no chance of hitting their target.
But the U.S. women offered a handful of finishing gems, as only 11 of 16 shots were on target to challenge New Zealand keeper Jenny Bindon. Most impressively, four different players found the back of the net, three of whom were midfielders (Lindsay Tarpley, Angela Hucles and O'Reilly).
Lone striker Amy Rodriguez also scored her first Olympic goal with an impressive strike on the ground; Hucles played the ball nicely to set up Rodriguez for a breakaway in the 42nd minute, giving the Americans an iron grip on the momentum.
But the U.S. can't depend on netting goals from more than 30 yards out. The players need to diversify their shot selection and create more opportunities off short passes in the box, crosses or set plays -- all of which were practically nonexistent elements against New Zealand.
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"It's great how we've fought back since the opening game against Norway," Sundhage told FIFA.com. "The whole team, myself included, are gaining in confidence the longer we're together. Today, we wanted to win and to score goals."
New Zealand never had a chance to get back into the game after O'Reilly scored. But there were times when the U.S. lagged with its defensive pressure, especially in the second half, giving New Zealand a few dangerous opportunities. The absence of Kate Markgraf, reportedly feeling under the weather, left Christie Rampone needing to cover for replacement Rachel Buehler's weak clearances on more than one occasion.
However, Lori Chalupny's return to left back provided a boon for the U.S.' attack. Her persistent runs up the wings not only spread the field but also gave Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd room to navigate more effectively.
Sundhage's insertion of Natasha Kai at forward and substitution of Stephanie Cox for defender Heather Mitts left the U.S. scrambling to adjust. For no good reason, the U.S. lost focus and resorted to sloppy play, joining in New Zealand's game of kickball. Veteran midfielder Aly Wagner's substitution settled the team, but the U.S. did not intelligently seize the opportunity to work on alternative passing combinations.
The U.S. narrowly avoided playing Brazil in the quarterfinals, a matchup that very well could have put an early end to the team's gold-medal aspirations. The Americans finally were dealt a lucky card, as the road ahead to the championship match puts the U.S. in the most favorable of positions to advance because Brazil, Germany, Norway and Sweden are on the other side of the bracket.
"We've played Canada a lot, we know them well and they know us well," Sundhage said in a FIFA.com news release. "The team that on the night shows true Olympic spirit and plays the better football will win."
U.S. player ratings (scale is from 1 to 10):
Hope Solo, 6 -- Solo didn't have to do much against New Zealand, other than playing cleanup patrol on the Ferns' meager three shots on goal. She played a solid game but wasn't called upon for any exceptional saves.
Christie Rampone, 6 -- Rampone played her third straight solid game and did double-duty anchoring the defense in the absence of her usual partner, Kate Markgraf.
Rachel Buehler, 4 -- The first-time Olympian showed good tackling technique when she negated a golden opportunity for New Zealand on a breakaway. But she also played conservatively, opting to boot a number of balls -- although one found Amy Rodriguez on the run.
Heather Mitts, 5 -- Mitts' positioning has served her well in her defensive play, but she still has the occasional giveaway in the back. The U.S. needs more effective crossing from her on the wings.
Lori Chalupny, 7 -- After sitting out against Japan, Chalupny came out in full force. She was a constant threat on the left wing, forcing New Zealand to cover her on the counterattack. She nearly scored the most spectacular goal of the game, earning an assist instead when the ball ricocheted off the crossbar for Angela Hucles' rebound goal.
Lindsay Tarpley, 6 -- The left winger had her best game in group play to date. Tarpley was much more involved in play and scored her 11th goal of the year to put the U.S. up 3-0.
Carli Lloyd, 7 -- She made several nice runs, and after shanking a few shots in the initial stages of the game, she settled down and did a nice job of holding the ball and switching the field.
Shannon Boxx, 6 -- Another solid game from Boxx, who played with energy and did well to move the team upfield against New Zealand. She should refrain from taking shots from 30 yards out and focus on taking the ball closer to goal.
Heather O'Reilly, 7 -- O'Reilly helped the team to a terrific start, blasting a goal from 30 yards out. She mixed it up on the wings and caught the Ferns off guard a number of times.
Angela Hucles, 6 -- Finally, Hucles brought the "final-pass" game Sundhage has been talking about. She looked much more comfortable playing behind Amy Rodriguez.
Amy Rodriguez, 5 -- Rodriguez struggled to find her rhythm all game long, but put the U.S. up 2-0 in an all-important strike that sent the team into offensive overdrive.
Natasha Kai, 3 -- Failed to make much of an impression despite earning a good chunk of time in the second half. Kai often was out of position for the final pass and looked shaky on the ball.
Stephanie Cox, 4 -- Cox subbed for Heather Mitts on the right side but didn't see much action against a dejected New Zealand side.
Aly Wagner, 5 -- Wagner proved her versatility after coming in late in the game. She made a number of nice slotted passes and seemed relatively comfortable even though she was earning her first minutes in this Olympics.
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.