No one ever said the United States women’s soccer team would coast to glory at the 2016 Olympics. That would be no fun, anyway.
The U.S. edged past France in its second preliminary-round game in the Olympic women’s soccer tournament, winning 1-0 on Saturday at Estadio Mineirao in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
Many expected France to be Team USA’s toughest opponent in the early stages of the tournament. France delivered everything but knockdown and knockout blows, controlling large swaths of the contest and creating a host of chances along the way.
Yet the Americans emerged victorious, thanks primarily to Carli Lloyd, who scored the winning goal, and Hope Solo, who denied France at every turn.
The level of Team USA’s performance dipped from where it was Wednesday in the opening win over New Zealand. The absences of center back Julie Johnston and midfielder Mallory Pugh from the starting 11 with minor injuries certainly were factors in the performance and result. But they were not entirely to blame.
In this case, France deserves credit for playing well. Having grown in stature in the last five-plus years, France’s vast improvement was on display for all to see in its third-ever meeting with Team USA in a major international competition. Les Bleus seized control through their methodical passing game and held advantages in possession, territory and chance creation through at least the first 50 minutes.
The U.S. struggled in possession in the first period, as the crisp, high-tempo passing-game it played against New Zealand curiously went missing. France superbly defended its own half, pressuring the Americans into mistakes whenever they dared venture into its third of the field.
Only Solo’s heroics prevented France from scoring in the first half. The U.S. goalkeeper saved Wendie Renard’s header in the 16th minute, Marie Laure Delie’s shot from a tight angle 10 minutes later and Delie’s one-on-one effort near the end of the first half. Solo’s trio of first-half saves were merely a warm-up for what was to come.
But first, Team USA changed the balance of play, and Lloyd turned the game on its head.
U.S. head coach Jill Ellis pushed Lloyd further forward at the outset of the second half, and the move seemed to unsettle France’s defense. Team USA found more space and passing outlets during its ascendant period, and Lloyd capped the 20-minute spell by finishing the best of the attacking moves.
Tobin Heath earned the assist, her second of the tournament, by hitting the post. Lloyd clipped the rebound into the open goal in the 64th minute.
Despite conceding, France didn’t retreat. Renard used her license to venture forward from her center-back position and headed shots on goal from close range in the 73rd and 83rd minutes. Solo stopped them both, as she also did Delie’s header in the 77th minute.
The win puts Team USA in position to top the group. Colombia remains as the preliminary-round opponent, but the U.S. already has passed its biggest test of the Olympics so far.
Here are two other notable aspects of Team USA’s win over France.
Lloyd’s charmed life
The U.S. hero didn’t deliver a dominant performance. France prevented her and her teammates from doing so. But “Clutch Carli” made her biggest contribution when Team USA needed her most, and her second goal of the tournament moved her into exclusive company and closer to a record.
Height, set-piece problems
Without Johnston, a dominant center back when the ball is in the air, the United States struggled to contain France’s threat from dead-ball situations. Whitney Engen played in Johnston’s place, but France’s barrage of aerial balls, especially late in the game, forced Ellis to change formations for the last 10 minutes.
Johnston can’t shake off that groin injury soon enough.
Thumbnail photo via John David Mercer/USA TODAY Sports Images