The United States were impressive in defeating a solid New Zealand team, living up to the claims that this is a stronger side than last year’s World Cup winners. The absence of last year’s host of strikers (Abby Wambach retired, Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez expecting) ensures that Carli Lloyd is playing as the second striker under Alex Morgan, though in truth that issue was already settled at the end of the World Cup. Morgan, too, is fully fit and coming off an injury-free season. Both scored very fine goals, and coach Jill Ellis will be happy that her senior strikers are in form from the outset.
The stand-out performer, though, was Tobin Heath. With Megan Rapinoe nursing an ACL injury on the bench, Heath was deployed in her natural position on the left flank. She provided the brilliant assist on Lloyd’s headed goal, and a hockey assist on Morgan’s, laying off the ball that Brian hit through to the striker. More generally, she was a terror down the left all game, and looked capable of creating every time she touched the ball.
But if veterans were the stars against New Zealand, it is the surrounding cast of new players that make for a more technical and fluent side. 28 year-old new-comer Allie Long served as a holding midfielder, freeing Morgan Brian to operate in a more creative and advanced role. On the right, teenager Mallory Pugh was injured early but remained fairly effective, as was her replacement, Crystal Dunn. Just after the 60th minute, Lindsey Horan came on for Brian Morgan. Horan is by nature more attacking than Brian, and often ended up in the same space as Carli Lloyd, for whom she might be a more natural replacement. This younger side already looks very comfortable with one another.
New Zealand offered a physical challenge that the United States looked more than capable of handling. Katie Duncan (née Hoyle, partner of retired New Zealand international Priscilla Duncan) was a key enforcer, and frequently found herself on the pitch. In one early instance captured on replay, Duncan seemed to attempt to rake Carli Lloyd’s knee; the play ended with Lloyd’s other knee in her groin. The referee allowed play to continue, so all the contact must have been incidental.
On the entertaining side, Brazilian fans booed Hope Solo in the rare instances where she touched the ball, eventually converting the Mexican “Puta” chant into a Solo-specific “Zika” chant (Solo had publically spoken out against holding the games in Brazil because of the virus, and fanned the flames with this tweet). One hopes that nothing more serious comes from the IOC’s poor decision-making in awarding Rio these games.
The United States will have a much sterner challenge today against France in the marquee game of the preliminary group stage. France looked very smooth against a Colombia side who are probably better than France made them look. It seems likely that France will have more of the ball than the US, forcing Ellis’s side to choose between pressing high or sitting back. Certainly, today’s game will offer a fuller sense of whether the US defense is at the same level as last year. There is every chance that this game will prove a preview of the gold medal game.