The United States is the clear favorite to take the gold medal in the 2016 Olympics, and tonight in Belo Horizonte they got off to a good start. The USWNT cruised to a fairly straightforward 2-0 victory over a physical, but ultimately limited, New Zealand side. Carli Lloyd opened the scoring with a 9th minute header, while Alex Morgan scored just seconds into the second half after a pass from Morgan Brian.
The USWNT more or less started the game with the lineup most expected. The only true questions were on the wings, where Mallory Pugh and Tobin Heath got the start ahead of Crystal Dunn and the not yet fit Megan Rapinoe. Morgan Brian was also given a start in central midfield after doubts about her hamstring had many wondering whether Lindsey Horan would be in the lineup instead.
Jill Ellis’s side came flying out of the blocks, opening up the field while playing at a tempo that suited them more than their more conservative opponents. The 18 year old Pugh sparked the team’s first chance, storming down the right wing past American-born New Zealand fullback Ali Riley to earn the US a corner. Tobin Heath’s delivery was glanced on frame by Julie Johnston at the near post, where it seemed to catch goalkeeper Erin Nayler by surprise.
Nayler still managed to prevent a goal, but her rebound fell right into the path of an onrushing Alex Morgan. Unfortunately for the USWNT, the ball bounced up too high for Morgan to use her foot, yet too low for a header. The Orlando Pride striker tried to knee the ball past Nayler, but New Zealand’s #1 was again able to make the save, and the Ferns managed to clear.
Less than a minute later, Carli Lloyd was fouled just outside the box, with Heath picking out Morgan. This time, Morgan couldn’t rise in time to snap the ball down, instead sending her header well over the bar.
The fouls kept coming from New Zealand, who lacked any other answer during the opening stages. Katie Bowen tripped up Tobin Heath along the left wing, and the US took the lead in the aftermath of the resulting 9th minute free kick. Heath, just inside the edge of the box, whipped a right-footed cross to the back post, where Lloyd rose up over two defenders to float a header over Nayler and back across the goal and in. New Zealand appealed for an offside call on the lurking Johnston after the assistant referee lifted her flag, but referee Kateryna Monzul correctly noted that Johnston did not actively involve herself in the play.
New Zealand continued going into tackles vigorously, with midfielder Betsy Hassett seeing the first yellow card for a hard, late tackle on Heath. However, between the booking and a stoppage for Pugh to be attended to by trainers, the US seemed to lose their edge a bit. They still had control of the game, but weren’t able to play at the high tempo that had caused the Ferns so many problems early on.
It would, in fact, be New Zealand with the next look at goal in the 29th minute. A looping ball came to Hannah Wilkinson, who did very well with her first touch to turn away from Johnston to create a chance to shoot. However, Johnston recovered to block the shot, which skipped up before falling gently to Hope Solo.
From there, the half mostly consisted of USWNT possession without much of anything near either penalty area. A cutback from Morgan on the endline in the 33rd minute looked tempting, but it ended up rolling between the runs of Lloyd and Heath. Perhaps the most notable incident in the final portion of the first half was a booking for Ali Riley after a collision with her old Stanford teammate Kelley O’Hara.
The Americans wasted no time in creating a chance in the second half. A splendid passing exchange between Heath and Brian opened up the New Zealand defense, allowing Brian to play Morgan in behind. From an angle to Nayler’s right, Morgan lingered just long enough to leave the goalkeeper wondering whether the shot would be at the near post, or across the goalmouth. Morgan fired low to the near post with enough power that Nayler couldn’t react in time, handing the US a 2-0 lead within 35 seconds of kickoff.
The treatment Pugh required in the first half apparently was not enough to overcome her issue, as the youngster was subbed off in the 51st minute with a slight limp. The Washington Spirit’s Crystal Dunn came in, taking up Pugh’s spot on the right wing.
Physical play continued to be a major factor, with defensive midfielder Katie Duncan involved with two separate awkward collisions, first with Allie Long and later with Lloyd. The second one briefly left Lloyd holding her lower back, but for Duncan - who appeared to be favoring her rib cage - it was one too many, with Kirsty Yallop coming on for her in the 71st minute.
New Zealand had brought on Sarah Gregorius for Bowen at the hour mark, moving Amber Hearn further forward and switching to a 442 formation. However, their overall attacking strategy - hopeful balls over the top looking for lone runners to get around the US back four - remained the same. The US continued trying to let the ball do the work, but New Zealand managed to keep themselves defensively organized enough to keep the game slow.
Dunn had not seen much of the ball, but in the 75th minute she managed to win a free kick despite going 1v2 down the wing. Heath sent a teasing ball in, but Lloyd could not quite reach the service to poke it past Nayler, who ended up catching the cross. New Zealand responded with a sustained spell of pressure on the US goal starting in the 80th minute, but ultimately the most danger they could create was a corner kick that forced Hope Solo to punch the ball clear.
Dunn again dribbled at two defenders without any help in the 89th minute, and again she still managed to create a chance. This time, she beat both opponents and played a low cross into the goalmouth. Heath lunged for the ball, but missed it by inches, with Nayler collecting the ball after it went beyond the Portland Thorns midfielder’s outstretched foot.
Solo - who was booed throughout and subjected to loud chants of "Zika!" as the game wore on after some controversial social media posts on the topic - had to solve one more problem in stoppage time, claiming a cross under pressure from substitute Jasmine Pereira. Solo managed to keep the ball while spinning away from the retreating O’Hara, preventing a collision that could have knocked the ball loose.
The USWNT moves temporarily atop Group H on three points, with France and Colombia still to play. The Americans will meet France - ranked #3 worldwide by FIFA - this coming Saturday.
Highlights will be added when they become available.