Carli Lloyd began this Olympic tournament as she ended the last one: scoring in an American victory.
The match-winner in the final at Wembley four years ago needed only nine minutes to find the net as the US eased to victory over New Zealand in their opening group game. Always composed and in control, the performance was efficient rather than thrilling, as routine as could be for the favourites.
The modest crowd in Belo Horizonte seemed to find its greatest enjoyment in taunting Hope Solo, the US goalkeeper, with boos and apparent chants of “Zika!” when she had the ball. That was a reference to Solo’s social media posts in the run-up to the Games in which she posed with various anti-mosquito products.
Solo seemed to take the chants with good humor. “It’s the Brazilians, they love soccer, they love football, it’s part of the culture so I expect it, but they’re having fun. I mean, at least it’s loud in the stadium – I’d rather have that than hear a needle drop,” she told NBC Sports after the game.
You could have shaped the statistical omens for or against the US before the match. The Americans are the world champions and claimed the gold medal in the previous three Olympics. Yet since women’s football arrived at the Olympics in 1996, no team has won the World Cup and the Olympics in successive years.
It seems too simplistic to suggest that teams with the talent and desire to win a World Cup would lack the motivation or ability to add to their trophy cabinet a year later. One difference between the competitions is that the Olympics presents a more condensed challenge.
Though it starts two days before the opening ceremony, this competition is far from bloated by the standards of modern football tournaments. It lasts only 17 days, with two recovery days between group matches; the rosters are 18-strong, compared with 23 in last year’s World Cup; and there are 12 teams not 24.
Fitness, rotation and organisation become especially important, then, with little time between games to rest aching limbs or reinvent tactical approaches. And the best teams are formidable – Germany, perhaps the biggest threat to the US, demolished Zimbabwe 6-1 in Sao Paulo earlier on Wednesday.
Though several icons are gone, most notably the retired Abby Wambach, Jill Ellis’s roster hardly lacks experience. It features four players in their first major senior tournament: Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan, Allie Long and the highly promising 18-year-old attacking midfielder, Mallory Pugh, who was substituted after 50 minutes, perhaps suffering the after-effects of a first-half injury.
It is thirteen months since Lloyd’s hat-trick propelled the US to a 5-2 final victory over Japan – who also lost the gold-medal match to the US in front of more than 80,000 fans in London four years ago but did not qualify for this tournament. England finished third in last year’s World Cup but British football’s self-absorbed political contortions mean there is no Team GB in Brazil.
Lloyd only returned to action last month after a right knee sprain sustained playing for the National Women’s Soccer League’s Houston Dash in April, while Megan Rapinoe made the squad yet has not played a game since tearing the ACL in her right knee last December. Unsurprisingly, she did not start on Wednesday, though Lloyd did.
“Of course we had to play defense, but we had to play less defense because we had such great ball movement and great possession of the ball,” said Solo after the game. “I think it was a great starting game for our team and for the young players as well.”
With a loss to the Netherlands and draws with hosts Canada and China, New Zealand finished bottom of their World Cup group last year. The Football Ferns offered little save for the kind of fouls that invite a sharp intake of breath and crossed fingers that no one is injured.
Such was the pattern of play from the kick-off, it was no surprise when the US took the lead early on, Lloyd looping a header into the far corner from six yards from Tobin Heath’s cross. That was the cue for the US to adopt a more patient approach – keeping possession, keeping their cool, probing without taking risks against well-drilled but limited opponents.
New Zealand’s prospects of an upset were all but crushed when Ellis’ team scored again only 34 seconds into the second half, Alex Morgan grabbing her 68th international goal with a low shot from an acute angle that goalkeeper Erin Nayler, beaten at her near post, perhaps should have saved.
The US next play Fifa’s third-ranked team, France, on Saturday in Belo Horizonte, then Colombia – probably Group G’s weakest side – on Tuesday in Manaus. A team with the Americans’ pedigree, and a record this year that reads played 16, won 15 (with one draw), worries less about the opposition than about timing their march through the tournament so they peak when it matters most. This was a good start.
This article was written by Tom Dart, for theguardian.com on Thursday 4th August 2016 01.13 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010