Team USA cruised through the group stages of the London Olympics, and as usual, it was Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan and Hope Solo who stole the headlines (for different reasons of course).
Now looming for the U.S. Women's soccer team is a quarterfinal matchup with New Zealand on Friday, a game the U.S. should completely dominate.
The Football Ferns are in just their second Olympic Games, and they've made the quarterfinals for the first time. In Beijing, the U.S. defeated New Zealand in its final group match 4-0.
New Zealand were also knocked out of the World Cup last summer after the group stages, but it has improved greatly in the last year and will give the U.S. some trouble.
Team USA will be counting on its three superstars once again to see them through to the semis, but the most important player for the USWNT is actually midfielder Carli Lloyd.
New Zealand will look to contain and control a powerful American side, and the USA will need Lloyd to step up and have a big performance.
Lloyd was excellent in the group stages, scoring two goals, one of which was the go-ahead in the 4-2 comeback victory over France in the opening game.
The 30-year-old has been a mainstay in the U.S. midfield for years now, but she's only just started coming into the role as a dominant midfielder in the last year, and her timing has been excellent.
Strikers always steal the spotlight and the glory in football, but thanks to Spain, midfielders are making a comeback. At Euro 2012, it became clear, not just through Spain, that a powerful and creative midfield was the real key to winning trophies, and football at all levels is following suit.
Whichever team controls the midfield controls the game and has the best chance to win. With strikers like Wambach and Morgan who just can't stop scoring, getting them proper service is vital, and with a strong but at times questionable defense, solid protection in front of the back line can change the whole game.
Carli Lloyd will be at the heart of everything for the U.S. on Friday, and she's proven in the last year that she is more than ready to take center stage.
Team USA's main weakness at last summer's World Cup was wasting possession and scoring chances. It has corrected that, thanks in large part to Alex Morgan.
The team's next biggest weakness? Allowing itself to be pushed around and its game to be disrupted by physical opponents. Example: the final group match against North Korea on Tuesday.
The U.S. dominated possession, but too often, it was pushed off the ball, forced to pass backward and start attacks over simply because of North Korea's physical playing style.
The U.S. is too strong for that, and it starts with Carli Lloyd.
Lloyd and her midfield partner Shannon Boxx will need to stamp their authority on this match early and often because the longer this game stays at 0-0, the more confidence New Zealand will gain. The U.S. handled North Korea's early pressure, and Abby Wambach's 25th minute goal effectively ended the match, but it would've been nice to add a bit of insurance.
Wambach and Morgan can't do it all by themselves, and neither can Christie Rampone and Rachel Buehler at the back. While Boxx will mainly stick back, Lloyd will be going from box to box all 90 minutes (possibly, but hopefully not more), and that's why she can be the hero who gets the U.S. one step closer to a fifth gold.
Of course, Lloyd knows all about being the Olympic hero for the U.S. In 2008, in the gold medal game against Brazil, Lloyd popped up to score the only goal of the game in the sixth minute of extra time, and she can do it again this summer.
While it may be one of the USA's prolific strikers who get the goals or Hope Solo making critical saves, a win over New Zealand Friday is all down to midfielder Carli Lloyd.
And she is more than ready to lead the team to gold.
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