Neil W. Blackmon
For the first fifteen minutes of the group stages, the few questions that surrounded the USWNT’s quest to defend its gold medal at the London Olympics seemed legitimate ones. Before most of the sizeable (and global) press contingent that follows the USWNT had settled into their seats at Hampden Park, the Americans were behind 2-0 to France, and at least a paragraph or two of the to-be-expected “what happened?” columns had been written.
When you qualify by winning your region’s qualification tournament by 30-something goals, those columns don’t get written often, so it’s best to get a head start. It took about ten minutes for those paragraphs to be deleted, but one can imagine the outline went something like this: Ali Krieger’s qualifying injury against the Dominican Republic was even more damaging than first imagined. It wasn’t as if the Americans entered the tournament with a steady back four to begin with, but without Krieger they are lost, lack shape and organization, and are either a few years to old (Rampone) or a few games short of seasoned (converted forward Kelly O’Hara). With an experimental, patchwork backline, the Americans were victimized twice by a game, talented France side who absorbed early pressure and converted their best opportunities. First, Amy LePeilbet, still adjusting to a new side of the field, headed away poorly, setting up Gaetane Thiney who hammered past an outstretched Solo. Then, only minutes later, the Americans again failed to clear properly (this time on a set piece), and Marie Laure-Delie fired a rebound past Solo, who had no chance. To top it all off, steady midfielder Shannon Boxx appeared to be outmuscled on the second goal, and appeared to limp (was that when the injury actually occurred?) dejectedly back to the midfield in its wake. She was replaced by Carli Lloyd in the seventeenth minute. The trade-off there is hardly a large drop in quality, but down 2-0, it seemed another difficult blow for a team whose depth issues in the back were being exploited in full. For all the pre-tournament talk about a fire in the belly in the aftermath of the Japan defeat in last summer’s World Cup Final, the Americans had begun their Olympiad playing sluggish, sloppy soccer.
Of course, those were just the opening paragraphs to the Olympic group stages, and paragraphs can be easily deleted. Abby Wambach scored for the Yanks in the 19th minute, and her combination-playmate Alex Morgan leveled on a strange Hope Solo pass?/clearance? in the 31st minute. Just like that the Yanks were level. Down 2-0 in a major international tournament for the first time in who only knows how long, the American woman erased that deficit almost as quickly as they fell into it and added two more, cruising to a 4-2 opening victory.
Since then, save a bizarre fifteen minute sequence against Colombia (more on that in a bit!!), they have looked every bit the favorites they are to win this tournament, playing with fire, grit and a hunger borne out of heartbreak, both on a personal and collective level.
In the case of Abby Wambach, there is the very real chance this is the last hurrah, the last major international tournament in an incomparable career. Fueled by the non-negotiable creep of age and the memory of both last year’s World Cup final defeat and her own personal sense of absence after missing the Beijing Games due to injury, Wambach has stated that this Olympics, maybe more so than any other tournament she’s played in, would be “special.” Certainly she has been, scoring a goal in each of the group stage matches, including the only goal in the hard-fought 1-0 win that closed out the group stages over a determined, ten-behind-the-ball North Korean side who seemed more interested in keeping the game close than advancing in the tournament. Abby remains the heartbeat of this team, and given the collective determination to heal the heartbreak of Germany and the defeat to Japan, their hearts are swollen and racing.
Take the case of Hope Solo, and her now-infamous Twitter throwdown with Brandi Chastain. In case you were on a cruise ship in the middle of a hurricane, Chastain (yes, that Brandi Chastain) is doing color commentary for NBC during the Olympics and was critical of the American defense in the aftermath of both the France and Colombia matches. Solo, fully embracing the “Social Media Olympics” nickname given to these games, then lashed out at Chastain on Twitter, suggesting that Chastain didn’t know what she was talking about and that the game had changed since 99, and she’d do well to keep her antiquated opinions to herself. To be clear, Hope Solo did what’s more or less the American soccer royalty equivalent of an Argentine saying Maradona knows nothing– or for a more defensible analogy, given Maradona’s managerial decisions, a Dutch player claiming Johan Cruyff is old and useless. Was the Twitter war silly and potentially a distraction? Sure. But one could just chalk it up to Solo’s fire– a burning in her belly to get the bitter taste of penalty shootout defeat out of her mouth and to cement her own place in American soccer royalty. Solo hasn’t had much to do in the final two matches, but she was brilliant in stopping Thiney in the second half of the France match, and she’ll need that fire in the matches to come.
Speaking of being brilliant when called upon, Carli Lloyd has been the quiet story of excellence in this tournament. Lloyd entered the France match for the injured Boxx and immediately settled the American center, helping the Americans establish a rhythm and dictate play much more effectively than they did in Germany a year ago. Lloyd filled in for Boxx admirably again in the Colombia match, where her ability and willingness to make the hard tackles and defend was on full display as the Americans sputtered a bit early in the second half. She has tired late in games– but as far as deputies go– she’s done a commendable job.
Credit Megan Rapinoe with an assist here– we knew how good her teammates thought she was entering last year’s World Cup, but the world is starting to understand how good she is at this Olympics. The two combined for Lloyd’s goal against France that gave the Yanks the lead, and the two of them were very consistent in their distribution and attacking intent that made Wambach and her partner Alex Morgan dangerous throughout. Rapinoe faded a bit in the North Korea match, and was removed at halftime, but she did play splendid soccer against Colombia, scoring on a tremendous strike and largely staying within herself in her distribution.
It’s that area– the ability to stay within herself and make good decisions– that has always been Rapinoe’s achilles– and for about fifteen minutes against Colombia and at times in the North Korea match– she’s shown that she still forces this issue too much when possession is just fine, and she sometimes opts for the grandiose when the gentle ball will do. But for the most part, she’s earned the right to start and has changed the dynamic of the American midfield (which in Germany was at times predictable) for the better. And she’s still as fun a competitor as you’ll ever find. She revealed a bit of where her fire comes from when she wished Ali Krieger a happy birthday in the aftermath of her goal against Colombia— and it’s moments like these– remember “Born in the USA” in Germany last summer– that make Rapinoe a cult hero and heartthrob among the USWNT (and Portland Hipster) faithful.
Speaking of heartthrobs, Alex Morgan, the Baby Horse forward partner to Wambach, the USWNT’s old war horse, has continued to make Pia Sundhage look the part of tactical genius. Sundhage made the decision at some point in the last year that Wambach’s play, legs, and maybe her career would best be supported by a pairing with Alex Morgan, and the United States has been essentially unbeatable since. This was most apparent, perhaps, when the USWNT steamrolled World Champion Japan in the build-up to the Olympic tournament, but it’s been evident throughout this tournament as well, even if Morgan has been a bit unlucky with her finishing since the France match.
Morgan has harassed opposing defenses with her pace and displayed quicker decision-making and niftier distribution than she offered in her super-sub role last summer, and her combination play with Wambach has, for the most part, been excellent. Her link-up play still seems a bit behind at times, but what’s clear is that her and Wambach have a very good understanding of each other and where each will be off the ball, and that continues to be a handful for defenses to deal with. Morgan has hit a few goalposts, or her goal tally would likely be higher, but it’s encouraging that she scored twice against the best team the Americans played in the group stages, and her pass to Wambach setting up the lone goal in the North Korea match was flawless. Her fashion choices at the Games have been heartbreaking, but her game gives the United States the best forward pair in this tournament, including potential medal round opponent Brazil.
Other women too, have shined. Tobin Heath has given the USWNT more on the flank than she has in the middle, to be sure, but she gives the American attack depth, particularly on overlapping runs where she drifts centrally, and she was excellent as a substitute against Colombia, playing a terrific ball to Abby Wambach for the “goodnight” goal just when the game seemed to be within Colombia’s reach. The aforementioned Kelley O’Hara has recovered from those opening paragraphs with a great account, particularly against the North Koreans, where she displayed the ability getting forward that made her a coveted forward prior to her position switch. It might not seem like a huge deal that she’s gotten stronger as the tournament has moved forward, but question marks about back lines have funny ways of re-presenting themselves in knockout stages.
And what else can be said about the captain Christie Rampone? Father Time threatened against France– but since, she’s been every bit the leader and composed sheriff of a defense that has warded off every threat. A gold medal seems the only way for her to finish.
Of course, Rampone knows that the hard part has just begun. New Zealand on Friday shouldn’t be terribly difficult, but the questions remain about the American backline and Japan and Brazil are still in the tournament, even if the latter isn’t playing particularly well. Throw Great Britain, the only side that can take away what has become a decidedly pro-American tournament in terms of crowd support, into the mix- and you get the idea.
Beyond those sides, as loosey-goosey as this group seems, there is significant pressure. Japan may be World Champions, but the United States remains the woman’s game standard-bearer. At home, they are expected to win. When they lose, even in a World Cup final, it’s dubbed a “choke”, or worse, a “total failure.” They’ve put 30,000 plus into Old Trafford for a Woman’s soccer match. They even talked to ESPN about how they feel pressure to play well to grow the game in Great Britain-– a nice idea and friendly gesture– but certainly not their responsibility. And isn’t that always the case with this team? So. Much. Responsibility. Save the game at home. Give the country a reason to support a women’s professional league. Live up to the legacy of the 99 World Cup winners. Hell, Julie Foudy, normally as level-headed as ex-player analysts can be, has dubbed the team “unstoppable.” It’s one thing when Abby Wambach says it. It’s quite another when American soccer royalty pronounces victory as if it were fact.
So the pressure is palpable. And there’s enough of it where you can’t, as the old athlete cliche goes, just “block that stuff out and only worry about what happens on the field.”. And the truth is, the makeshift, Krieger-less defense hasn’t really been stretched outside of one match, and the competition will eventually get tougher. After a golden group stage, the mighty USWNT are three matches from another Gold Medal. But after Japan last summer and a fifteen-minute reminder against France, let’s bet they remember it’s not a golden beginning that matters, but a golden finish.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder and Co-Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.