|Sydney Leroux torches a New Zealand defender on her way to the clinching goal in the U.S.'s 2-0 win. (AP)|
The U.S. women's soccer team is two win away from a third straight gold medal, and as expected, the team's airtight defense is powering the team forward as its usual suspect finishing keeps opponents in the--
We wrote after the U.S.'s opening win over France that they were who we thought they were, an attacking force prone to the occasional defensive lapse. But over their past two matches -- a 1-0 win over North Korea and Friday's 2-0 quarterfinal victory over stubborn New Zealand -- that script has been flipped, with the American defense running their no-goals-allowed streak to an impressive 343 minutes while the offense lets chance after chance go begging.
It's still early to start comparing the U.S. backline of Amy LePeilbet, Rachel Buehler, captain Christie Rampone, and Kelley O'Hara to the '85 Bears--against teams other than each other or hapless Cameroon, the final three victims in that scoreless streak (Colombia, North Korea, and the Kiwis) scored a total of zero goals in seven matches. And the distribution issues out of the back that helped indirectly spark the great Hope Solo-Brandi Chastain Twitter explosion reared their ugly head again, with the U.S. often struggling to connect passes in the face of the Kiwis' surprising defensive-half pressure. (Central midfielders Carli Lloyd and Lauren Cheney share some of the blame for this, too.)
Still, 343 scoreless minutes is 343 scoreless minutes, and after one or two shaky moments vs. North Korea, the U.S. defense never looked seriously rattled vs. New Zealand. The Kiwis failed to generate any legitimate goal-scoring opportunity, settling for a barrage of long-range shots that only rarely caused Solo the slightest hint of trouble; the closest they came to scoring was an awkward late U.S. challenge that could have been called a penalty kick if the referee had been in a different mood. But aside from that blip, the Kiwis never looked like scoring.
The problem for the U.S. is that they spent much of the match looking like they'd put up an easy three- or four-spot, only to need Sydney Leroux's 87th minute finish to finally seal the victory. The principal culprit, surprisingly enough, was Alex Morgan, who stunningly missed an empty net early in the match and had three or four other golden opportunities to put her name on the scoresheet for the first time since the France match. Leroux won't be stealing her starting job any time soon, but a confident, wrecking ball performance in her 10-minute cameo could see her substituted on for Morgan much earlier in the semifinal.
That's not to say that Morgan was a disaster -- her perfectly-executed turn-and-cross to the far post for Wambach's opener was a thing of beauty -- and she was far from the only American to spurn a goalscoring chance. But the U.S. offense simply won't be at its gold medal potential if Morgan isn't finishing the opportunities her speed and ball-control offer her.
The news for the U.S. after the New Zealand match remains far more good than bad. They've survived-and-advanced; they're still injury-free, aside from the Shannon Boxx hamstring problem that Carli Lloyd's steady play has made mostly irrelevant; and most encouragingly, if the defense can remain this stout while Morgan rediscovers her finishing touch, the U.S. will reach a level no other team in the tournament can dream of matching.
The bad news is that the converse is true as well--if the offense continues to mostly fire blanks (against back lines more experienced than the Kiwis) and the defense reverts to giving a goal away per-game, the U.S. will suddenly be far more vulnerable than expected.