The United States run at the Rio Olympics got off to a solid start by winning 2-0 over a physical New Zealand team. The scoring opened in the 9’ with Carli Lloyd beating two defenders in the box to head in a cross from Tobin Heath. In the second half, Alex Morgan completed the scoring in the 46’ with a driven shot that beat goalkeeper Erin Nayler on her near post. It wasn’t always a thrilling performance by the United States but for a team that’s often started slow in major tournaments, it’s three points well earned.
This is the most technical United States team we’ve seen in a major tournament
Look back at the performance against New Zealand and one thing you won’t see in abundance are long balls pumped aimlessly into the box. There were crosses from out wide that didn’t connect with their target but more often than not the United States looked to move the ball around on the ground. This is a tactical shift from even a year ago at the World Cup where the United States played much more direct, using their physical advantage to win balls in the air and score goals.
For one, the system that Jill Ellis prefers doesn’t utilize a target forward and that’s reflected in the personnel selected in the front four. However, crucial to this technical effort was a player making her Olympic debut. Allie Long was integral not only as a shield to the back four but the quick tempo of her passing helped link play and move the United States expediently from phase to phase. Contrast that with the Australian performance in their game against Canada (which they lost 2-0), a team that played up a player for over an hour but couldn’t find a goal. Where the Australians stood on the ball and lingered with very little off the ball movement, the United States moved the ball around and forced New Zealand to chase for much of the game. Long’s calm and collected debut performance gave talented attacking players like Tobin Heath, Carli Lloyd, and Morgan Brian creative freedom in their midfield roles. It’s no surprise then that those three players were all involved in the two American goals scored.
One of the main detracting arguments against the style of play that the United States employed historically was its lack of sophistication and nuance. Our national soccer identity dictates that there will always be some element of physicality and sheer determination to the style of the American women but the system that Jill Ellis plays has brought a level of tactical subtlety that we haven’t seen before in tournament play.
The leaders got involved right away
A common storyline for the United States women in major tournaments has been their slow starts in the group stage. For whatever reason, no matter the quality of the pre-tournament preparation, it’s taken the team and its key figures a few games to work into the tournament. Look at the 2011 World Cup, an uninspiring group stage highlighted by a final round loss to Sweden put the United States on a collision course with Brazil in that legendary quarterfinal. In the London Olympics, they were figuratively sucker punched by France in the first match, dropping down 2-0 before storming back and winning that match 4-2. The 2015 World Cup is the same story: an efficiently average group stage transitioned into Carli Lloyd catching fire through the knockout rounds and ultimately the team won the World Cup. It wasn’t always pretty but it was pretty American.
That slow start narrative has been flipped on its head in the Rio Olympics. Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan, two key pieces to US success in this tournament, opened up their Rio goalscoring accounts against New Zealand. Hope Solo earned her first clean sheet of the tournament and boos from the Brazilian fans in the stands may even galvanize her future performances in this tournament. For once, the storyline isn’t waiting for key cogs in the wheel to get going in the tournament. They’re moving, they’ve got good performances under their belt, and heaps of confidence going into the toughest group stage match against a high-flying French team with goals to spare.
A tepid Olympic debut for Mallory Pugh
America’s favorite teen sensation didn’t exactly announce herself on the Olympic stage but that’s to be expected for an 18-year-old playing in her first major tournament game. She had a few bright touches early in the match and showed hints of the promise and skill that’s made her so invaluable so quickly. After a heavy challenge in the first half that took her off of the field, she never quite got back into the game. This can be attributed to a couple of factors. The most obvious is that Pugh picked up a knock and nursed that throughout the game until she was eventually replaced by Crystal Dunn in the 51’.
Mallory Pugh has a "right ankle knock" per US spokesperson. Jill Ellis said they'll know more after they return to their hotel.— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) August 4, 2016
The tactical explanation is that with Tobin Heath back in the lineup she is a natural left sided player who tends to disappear if she’s played on the right hand side. Pugh is also a player that looks much more comfortable when played on the left side of the pitch. When she’s played on the right side of the pitch she doesn’t have as much of an impact and tends to drifts left and leaves her flank exposed. For 10 minutes during the match, Heath and Pugh swapped sides and during that time Pugh looked much more comfortable. They switched back, however, because Heath who had a large impact to that point faded on the right.
This brings up a major dilemma because quite obviously both Heath and Pugh cannot play that left attacking midfielder role. Jill Ellis has a major decision to make assuming that Pugh is healthy and ready to play against France. The service that Heath provided, both from set pieces and in the run of play, was invaluable to the United States against New Zealand. But we’ve all seen what Pugh can do when she’s at her best and that may be on the left side. Does Ellis move Pugh to the left, start Crystal Dunn on the right, and drop Tobin Heath? Probably not considering Heath’s performance. Would it be more practical to drop Pugh on the right, start Dunn in her place, and bring in Pugh as an impact player late in matches? Those are the questions that will be on Ellis’ mind heading into the second group match against France.