The US women’s team can breathe a sigh of relief after beating New Zealand a comfortable 6: 1 result Saturday in Saitama.
The win is enough to neutralize the risk of falling at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, which looked surprisingly real to the USWNT after their shocking opening defeat four days ago. In truth, the result against New Zealand was more flattering than the performance itself. The Americans looked better, but worries about the opening defeat against Sweden still don’t seem to be in the rearview mirror.
The USWNT looked more aggressive but also a little more nervous and had four possible goals offside in the first half because the players were “a little impatient”, according to US manager Vlatko Andonovski. Concerned about scoring the first goal and then filling in the score in case a goal difference is required as a tiebreaker, the Americans still didn’t look quite like themselves.
In the end, they benefited from seemingly unlimited space and time, a gift from New Zealand. In the few moments when New Zealand came under pressure, they lacked coordination and, frankly, the courage of Sweden, leaving the Americans with leeway. It wasn’t long before New Zealand gave up and just sat deep, giving the US the time it needs to set up and play as planned.
With that extra respite, the untypical sloppiness against Sweden was gone, and the USWNT sometimes moved the ball well, using one-touch passes and overlapping runs to create a nice teamwork. Of the six goals scored, two were New Zealand’s own goals, but the others showed that the USWNT are on time on counterattacks – at least if they have room to maneuver.
Rose Lavelle scored the first goal in the ninth minute after a quick change when Tobin Heath kicked a ball into the penalty area for Lavelle’s run, giving the OL Reign midfielder the opening she needed. The fourth goal was perhaps a typical USWNT goal: Julie Ertz grabbed her head in midfield and saw Christen Press storm into the penalty area – it was followed by a cross, a ball touch and a sovereign shot, anything before defense could come closer.
As Andonovski noted after the Sweden game, “We felt like we lost the ball way too many times before we even started building, before we even built our set-up structure.” There were no such problems against a New Zealand team that would never raise similar problems due to their lower talent and there is a lack of adequate preparation for these Olympic Games.
But despite the freedom to play as they wanted, the Americans didn’t quite show the ruthlessness that the players promised after the Sweden game. The Americans didn’t come out and just crush New Zealand; Perhaps it would be unfair to expect this at all, apart from the fact that Americans did it in almost every game in the 2019 World Cup.
That the story of the USWNT in Japan so far has been one of overcoming battles is perhaps surprising when you look at the players Andonovski brought with him. This is a run-it-back list of players who made their way through France at the 2019 World Cup. But the magic of this group just isn’t there and the USWNT’s performances, even in the 6-1 win over New Zealand, felt different.
“It wasn’t our best performance in Game 1 and we came into Game 2 knowing that we were not going to be a great team from a really great team two days ago,” said Crystal Dunn after the New Zealand game. “We just came in a little more relaxed and more trusting.”
Kathleen McNamee analyzes the USWNT’s 6-1 victory over New Zealand at the Tokyo Olympics.
Dunn is right. But have the Americans gone from a really great team two years ago to a no longer great team? That also seems unlikely: the USWNT have only lost once in their past 46 games, against Sweden a few days ago. But if the US wants to get into the gold medal game, as it does in all Olympics except 2016, it has to play better.
The Americans looked at times out of sync in attack with their four offside goals and several other offside goals, but the fluidity improved as the game progressed. Defensively, however, they again showed vulnerability in chasing runners into the box, with New Zealand’s only goal proving that sooner or later this needs to be addressed. It was a problem a few days ago, then another problem on Saturday.
There is no easy solution. Abby Dahlkemper was to blame for the goal, and she also struggled against Sweden – a surprising trend given her top game for club and country. It can be replaced in the line-up, but the defense has left surprising gaps everywhere, suggesting that this is more a matter of cohesion than a personnel issue.
If this USWNT in Tokyo is like a previous World Cup winning team, it’s not the 2019 version, despite the fact that most of the players on the squad won the trophy in France. No, this group could be much closer to the 2015 team, which started with poor performances and was helped out by a little luck and mistakes on the part of the opponents before they took hold.
Carli Lloyd, who became the star of this team in 2015 (but only after several unsuccessful games), said on Saturday that this USWNT can still grow into this tournament.
“I still think we have a lot to give,” said Lloyd on Saturday. “It’s just the beginning. It was a good response, good result, good goals. We can always learn, we can always get better, but that’s a start in the right direction.”
Fortunately for the Americans, they don’t have to be leaps and bounds until the next game, which takes place in just three days. A draw with Australia at the end of the group stage is enough to ensure the US finish second in Group G and secure a spot in the quarter-finals. But from the point where you face a challenge against either Brazil or the Netherlands, better performance is mandatory.