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USA defeats New Zealand 2-0 in Olympic opener

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Despite a struggle in the final third, the U.S. had the game well in hand

Olympics: Football-Women's Team-1st Round Group G-United States (USA) vs New Zealand (NZL) John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

USA Starting XI: Hope Solo, Becky Sauerbrunn, Julie Johnston, Kelley O'Hara, Meghan, Klingenberg, Allie Long, Morgan Brian, Carli Lloyd, Mallory Pugh, Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan

New Zealand starting XI: Erin Nayler, Ali Riley, Abby Erceg, Rebecca Stott, Ria Percival, Betsy Hassett, Katie Duncan, Annalie Luongo, Katie Bowen, Amber Hearn, Hannah Wilkinson

The United States kicked off their Group G games against New Zealand tonight. They came out with high energy, Carli Lloyd pushing high next to Alex Morgan as a second striker. Mal Pugh also got her first Olympic start, playing wide right for most of the half.

The U.S. had a handful of early chances as they attempted to settle down in the attacking third, and it all eventually culminated in a goal in the 9’ by Carli Lloyd, popping in a header despite tight marking from a nice ball served in from Tobin Heath.

The game slowed down over the rest of the first half; the U.S. continued to get into the box, but didn’t quite manage to look threatening, while New Zealand was just disruptive enough to keep the U.S. from putting too much together inside the 18.

New Zealand also had their fair share of hard challenges on U.S. players, with the brunt of them falling on Heath, who was lucky to escape a challenge from Betsy Hassett without injury in the 18’. Hassett got a yellow, which slightly curbed the rough play.

Heath carried a lot of the attack forward along the left; she switched right with Pugh in the middle of the half, then switched back, continuing to control that left side but unable to quite find someone in the box.

The U.S. also had good ball movement out of the back, easily switching side to side as they probed up both flanks. A little more involvement from Pugh probably would have been the impetus behind a second goal in that half, as Morgan and Lloyd were often just a few inches out of position.

The most dangerous moment was in the 29’ when a New Zealand throw-in bounced and allowed a little lob that fell into Solo’s arms. New Zealand did get half a chance in the box in stoppage, but they were mostly kept out of threatening positions, with Solo called upon mostly to collect strays while she remained well-screened by her defense. The first half ended 1-0 with Lloyd’s goal the difference maker so far.

Alex Morgan started the second half with a bang, scoring in the 46’ with no pressure on her as she shot near post to make it 2-0.

That was followed by a sub in the 51’ with Crystal Dunn coming on for Mallory Pugh. It wasn’t the best game from Pugh, who had been hyped heavily coming into this tournament, and for good reason. Perhaps big tournament nerves got to her; hopefully Pugh will take her first Olympic minutes and use them to get settled for France, assuming she’s fit to play.

Dunn made more of an impact than Pugh on the right, driving deep and centering the ball several times. The U.S. continued to resort to patient build up, with Heath finding herself most often in the box pouncing on balls, but always just inches off.

The second U.S. sub came in the 64’ with Lindsey Horan in for Morgan Brian; Horan paired with Long in front of the back line in a like-for-like sub as Lloyd continued to range farther ahead, just behind Morgan. Horan had a few good balls from deep, once again for Heath, but New Zealand continued to disrupt U.S. play as it crossed the midfield line.

The last U.S. sub was in the 81’ as Christen Press came in for Alex Morgan. Press didn’t have much time to make an impression and the game wound down with the U.S. starting to have a little trouble holding the ball in the midfield as New Zealand pressed harder and harder, searching to get even one goal back. Things ended on a solid note, Dunn nearly putting Heath in with a centered ball in the box, and the U.S. closed out the rest of stoppage to end the game 2-0.

Overall it was a businesslike opening win that got a lot of key players warmed up and introduced Mal Pugh to the pressures of a high-level tournament. There was plenty of good ball movement to be pleased about, although that needs to get cleaned up as it enters the attacking third. A little more mustard from Pugh could make it happen; we’ll see if and how she fares against France.

The United States faces Les Bleues on Saturday, August 6 at 4 PM ET.