If the goal so beautifully conceived by four United States women’s national team attackers and so wonderfully struck by Rose Lavelle did not convince everyone the USWNT was channeling the lingering distaste from its Olympic-opening fiasco into a furious exhibition of exertion, surely Lavelle had them sold within the next minute.
The goal had come in the ninth minute of the second game in Olympic Group G play, presenting the U.S. with its first lead of the tournament. It began with a forward header from veteran forward Carli Lloyd for which she paid the price of a bump on the noggin, followed by a vital controlling touch from midfielder Lindsey Horan that allowed winger Tobin Heath to control the ball and play it through a gap to Lavelle just inside the right of the box. Lavelle controlled it, saw a gap between the keeper and the right post and sliced it through with a precise strike of her right foot.
There was the allotted time to celebrate, but no time to rest.
Because a short while after play was restarted from the center circle, New Zealand got the ball deep down the left hand side with an opportunity to make something interesting happen. Or not, because Lavelle dashed from her attacking position – maybe 65 yards, maybe more – and slid to tackle the ball away from New Zealand’s Olivia Chance. That alone would have been an amazing effort. But Lavelle scrambled to her feet as the ball rolled toward the goal line, dashed over and controlled it before it could across for a Kiwi corner kick.
This was the most important aspect of the USWNT’s performance in a 6-1 victory that advanced them to second place in the group: hunger.
“I think we had more energy from the get-go,” midfielder Julie Ertz told reporters. “We came out wanting to score goals and make a statement. Obviously, we weren’t satisfied with the last game and we had to have a fresh start. And we were able to do that.”
The USWNT actually put the ball in the back of the net 10 times – but had four goal erased for offside. It was a bit disconcerting at the time, because all of them came with the score still at 1-0 from Lavelle’s early strike, but in the end it could be viewed as one more piece of evidence the players were driven, in this case a bit too desperate, to erase whatever memories they could from the devastating 3-0 loss to Sweden in the opening game, their first defeat in 45 games.
Winger Megan Rapinoe ran as hard and as long as in any game in memory, including when she was awarded the Golden Ball and Golden Boot at the 2019 Women’s World Cup.
“I think we came into game two knowing that we don’t go from being a really great team two days ago to not being a great team anymore,” left back Crystal Dunn told reporters. “I think we just came in a bit more relaxed, trusting in each other and knowing that we’re here and we can get the job done.
“We went from a 44-game unbeaten streak, and the first game in the Olympics we lose in the fashion that we did. That wasn’t obviously amazing, but we are well-equipped to deal with adversity.”
These were the other important developments from the U.S. victory:
Julie Ertz’ return. After choosing to play her only in the second half against Sweden in her first action since a May knee injury, coach Vlatko Andonovski started Ertz (above) in the defensive midfield role she has made her own during the past five years. Ertz was not called upon to break up an overwhelming number of New Zealand attacks, but she handled the few she saw with aggression and precision.
She was a vital part of the offense, though, including her header on a set corner-kick play from beyond the far post back to the center of goal, where Horan headed it in for the team’s vital second goal, just before halftime, and a cross from the right side to Christen Press in the 80th minute that Press settled sweetly and then knocked into the right corner for a 4-1 lead.
Most important, Ertz went the full 90 minutes.
“We’ve learned before, Olympics is hard: you play games, fast turnaround, anything can happen in any tournament,” Ertz said. “It was definitely an opportunity to learn from. And luckily we got to learn from that early on in the tournament.”
Goal differential. Ertz said Andonovski told the players, “Go out there and be ruthless,” and that was essential to the performance. A 2-0 win would have been a nice bounceback, but the truth is the USWNT had to rampage through this game to undo the damage of the Sweden loss.
The first- and second-place teams in each group qualify for the quarterfinals, along with the two best-positioned third-place teams. So the U.S. gets two benefits from turning their goal differential from a minus-3 to a plus-2 in a single night.
The first is that they’ll clinch a second-place finish by tying Australia in the final group game Tuesday. The Aussies went from a 2-1 victory over New Zealand to a 4-2 loss to Sweden Saturday, placing them at minus-1 in goal differential.
The USWNT’s standing at plus-2 is a significant advantage over all the current third-place teams. It would take a stunning combination of events on the third day of group play to keep the Americans from advancing.
Group G standings
|4. New Zealand||0||2||0||2||0||2||8||-6|
“We wanted to be aggressive. We wanted to play with urgency,” Andonovski told reporters. “We wanted to be intense and when the atmosphere is a little bit hyped up by the staff and by the players themselves, the players are a little bit impatient which showed early on in the game. I’m glad they were able to settle in and get the timing right for all their runs after that.”
Player rotation. Andonovski was able to rest veteran defender and team captain Becky Sauerbrunn for the entire game, deploying gifted 22-year-old Tierna Davidson in her spot. Right back Kelley O’Hara also got a full night off.
Lloyd started over Alex Morgan, who entered late and scored the team’s fifth goal off a chipped cross from Press. Midfielder Sam Mewis was rested and Horan moved forward to play in a more natural attacking spot; she was among the team’s most dangerous players.
“We’re going to do that probably in the next game, too,” Andonovski said about rotating players. “Every next game that is ahead of us is the most important game, and we’re going to try to have the best team that we feel like is going to help us win the game.”
The goal differential recovery will allow some flexibility in this area.
There were small concerns in this game. With three goals getting past her in the opener, goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher appeared very cautious about leaving her net unprotected to collect balls rolling harmlessly into the box. She let the defenders deal with those, and that could be an issue against an opponent with the sort of player – say, Australia’s brilliant Sam Kerr – who can pounce on such a ball and turn it into an opportunity.
Most worrying, central defender Abby Dahlkemper (above) had her second consecutive rough game. She was not sharp much of the night, including the misjudgment of a ball sent into the box in the 43rd minute, which New Zealand forward Hannah Wilkerson was able to field and nearly turn into a goal. But then, in the 72nd minute, came a massive blunder. In position to knock the ball over the right sideline for a simple NZ throw-in, Dahlkemper struck the ball forward instead, and Paige Satchell was able to run it down, draw out Naeher and then feed it to teammate Betsy Hassett for a goal to cut the U.S. lead to 3-1.
It was a disappointing moment on an otherwise positive night that saw the U.S. regain some of the swagger befitting a defending World Cup champion.
“Very happy with the result. Much different outcome than the last game,” Andonovski said. “We came here in this game with the right mentality and the right approach. We came with the mindset to win this game and accomplished the first step and we move on from here.”