USWNT starts Olympic run with 2-0 win over New Zealand: Six things to know
Heath and Lloyd shine, but U.S. doesn't put on its best display in a routine win
If the U.S. women's national team wins gold at the 2016 Olympics, it'll become the first team ever to do so the year after winning the World Cup. That's what's at stake for the U.S. this August.
So consider it a good sign then that the U.S. entered the tournament as the favorite to win it all and started off its Olympic run with a 2-0 victory over New Zealand on Wednesday, earning three points for the shutout win and securing a spot atop Group G.
Here are six takeaways from the game:
1. Carli Lloyd's still got it
It took nine minutes for Carli Lloyd to remind the world that she's still the best player on the planet. The last time Lloyd found herself on the national stage, she scored three goals in the first 16 minutes of the 2015 World Cup final. A year later, in the ninth minute of the USWNT's 2-0 win over New Zealand, Lloyd headed home the team's first goal.
This is pretty much as perfect of a header as perfect headers get:
Funnily enough, Lloyd started the 2012 Olympics on the bench and only entered the game when an early injury occurred. She ended that gold-medal run with two goals in the finals.
Now she's in the process of establishing herself as the greatest soccer player of all-time.
Carli Lloyd (USA): Scored her 7th career Olympic goal, 3 shy of breakingAbby Wambach's US Olympic record— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) August 3, 2016
Recently, Lloyd, 34, told Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl that she wanted to win a gold medal this year, another World Cup three years from now, and then a gold medal in 2020 before she calls it quits. She's off to a fast start.
2. Tobin Heath: Also very good
Don't overlook how Lloyd wound up with that first goal. Tobin Heath, playing on the left side of the midfield, took her defender down the line, held her off, cut back across her body, and then lofted a perfect ball to Lloyd across the box.
Along with Lloyd, Heath functioned as the USWNT's best threat all game long. She set up Alex Morgan on an early free kick, assisted on Lloyd's goal, repeatedly chopped up New Zealand's defense, and nearly scored on multiple occasions.
Really, the only way New Zealand stopped her was by fouling her.
3. Alex Morgan's still got it, too
When healthy, she's undoubtedly the USWNT's best striker. But last summer at the World Cup, Alex Morgan wasn't healthy, slowly working herself back into the rotation as the tournament wore on.
This time around, Morgan is healthy. And for the first time really, she's tasked with carrying the load without all-time great Abby Wambach, who retired after the World Cup.
So far, so good:
That goal, the product of some rare creativity in the final third, extended the U.S. lead to two just a minute into the second half.
4. Lack of creativity in the final third
The U.S. won. The U.S. will almost definitely advance to the knockout round. And the U.S. is still the best team at the Olympics. But the U.S. didn't play like it on Wednesday.
That's not to say the USWNT played poorly, it just didn't live up to the perhaps unfair expectations it created. It was organized, yes, but it lacked creativity near New Zealand's goal. Because the U.S. dominated possession (64-36), it spent much of the game playing against a team with all 11 players back behind the ball. Outside of Lloyd and Heath, the U.S. struggled to dissect New Zealand in a compact setting.
In a way, and I mentioned this in our live blog of the match, the USWNT plays better soccer against the world's best teams. Those games are more free flowing with larger pockets of space available for a U.S. side that prefers to function within a direct system.
Which is why I don't anticipate this being an issue for much longer. The competition will get better as the tournament progresses -- starting with France on Saturday -- and the U.S. should shake off the sloppiness. Remember: This is a young team with new faces like Mallory Pugh, Crystal Dunn, and Lindsey Horan, all of whom hadn't played in the Olympics until Wednesday.
5. Still the favorites
The defense is still the best in the world (Hope Solo recorded another shutout and the backline remained as sturdy as always), Carli Lloyd is still Carli freakin' Lloyd, and the USWNT is still the favorite to win the Olympics.
Put another way, the U.S. is still the U.S., which is bad news for every other participating country, because it means they'll probably serve as nothing more than participants.
6. What's next?
The U.S. battles France at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday. One of these two teams will win the group, which places more importance on the contest.
In the meantime, the U.S. might want to spend the next few days working on throw-ins.
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