USWNT Closer to Finding Winning Formula with Bounce-Back Win over New Zealand

Katelyn BestFeatured Columnist IJuly 24, 2021

United States' Lindsey Horan, second from right, celebrates after scoring a goal during a women's soccer match against New Zealand at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Saturday, July 24, 2021, in Saitama, Japan. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)
Martin Mejia/Associated Press

Can we just pretend that first game didn't happen?

If Saturday's 6–1 win over New Zealand had been the United States women's first game at these Olympics, rumors of their untimely demise would have been much quieter. It wasn't a perfect performance, but it was a massive improvement over the team's miserable loss to Sweden earlier this week—and in any case, the only fans in the world who would expect a perfect match midway through the group stage in a tournament are American ones.

Of course, the difficulty in evaluating a victory over an opponent such as New Zealand, which looked hapless, is teasing apart how much came down to one team being good and the other team being bad—and it's hard to overstate how limp-wristed an opposition the Football Ferns mounted.

The key to the USWNT's dominance is always that their players are better than the players on other teams, but New Zealand's problem was worse than individual matchups. Unlike Sweden, it gave the Americans little trouble as they moved the ball wherever they wanted, and worse, even when it dropped into a defensive block, it conceded ample space and opportunities out wide. The second- and third-to-last U.S. goals—both of which Christen Press had a hand in, one as a scorer and the second as a facilitator—were made possible by a back line with no shape of which to speak. It was like playing FIFA against the AI with the difficulty turned all the way down.

Still, sometimes turning the difficulty down can be useful both as a confidence builder and to lock in certain patterns of play, and the Americans looked like their old selves in a lot of areas in which they struggled in the first match. The single biggest improvement came in the midfield, where starters Lindsey Horan, Julie Ertz and Rose Lavelle had great outings.

Martin Mejia/Associated Press

Lavelle, for her part, was fine against Sweden. Her problem was that she was cut off from Horan, Samantha Mewis and both wingers. With that sorted out, she offered quality, opening her Olympic scoring account with a beautiful first-touch finish on a Tobin Heath assist for the first goal.

With Ertz starting in the No. 6 spot, Horan was in her usual No. 8 position, and she notched a goal, a goal that was called offside but should not have been and an assist that didn't count, as the ball bounced off Abby Erceg for an own goal. As she does when she's playing her best, Horan was active across the full length and width of the field, dropping deep to cover for Ertz when necessary, combining with the outside backs and wingers, sending balls into the box and finding scoring chances herself. But again, it's difficult to compare her two performances given her skill advantage over the Kiwis tasked with marking her.

The other major factor in the midfield was Ertz's start. This game was a reminder of just how pivotal she is to the U.S. For one thing, having her as an anchor deep in the midfield frees up Horan to do what she does best. The team also benefits from her aerial dominance in the box and from her vision and long passing accuracy. More intangibly, Ertz is loud.

She's the person who makes sure the group project gets done on time, whether she has to do it herself or delegate. At one point in the first half, she pointed up the field, where she wanted right back Emily Sonnett to pass, then loudly told Sonnett off when she instead passed back to Abby Dahlkemper. You get to do that when you're always right.

Getty Images, Francois Nel / Staff

That brings us to one of the few areas wherein the U.S. needs to make a change. Dahlkemper has been consistently poor; her performance against Sweden was maybe excusable given, well, everything, but this one sealed it. She was stunningly bad. In the early minutes, when the U.S. still looked a little nervy and was having to go end to end, the Kiwis easily split her and Sonnett multiple times.

Dahlkemper hardly made a move toward the ball on those occasions. She lost several aerial duels in the box, something American center backs are not supposed to do. Worst of all, she was pivotal in allowing New Zealand's consolation goal. Becky Sauerbrunn was probably always going to rotate out of the lineup for this one, but going forward, the pairing has to be Sauerbrunn and Tierna Davidson.

That goal is worth unpacking. Forward Paige Satchell momentarily stole Dahlkemper's soul from her body, cutting inside after the center back mishit her clearance and then easily finding Betsy Hassett after Dahlkempter was in a pile on the ground. On the other hand, the ball got into that area because Horan and Crystal Dunn, whether out of complacency or fatigue, allowed Katie Bowen to set a quick transition play in motion.

That's the sort of thing the U.S. has to tighten up if it's going to make a deep run. You can't drop six on every opponent. On the other hand, it's the sort of thing you expect early in a tournament. But the U.S. will need to continue rounding into form, as Australia presents a step up in quality compared to New Zealand, and the Americans need to avoid a loss to guarantee advancement into the knockout phase.

As the optimal starting lineup shakes out and the pressure ratchets up, expect this team to keep getting better. That's what it's all about, really.