The United States kicked off their Olympic tournament with a solid, not terribly flashy 2-0 win over New Zealand.
Now they face their biggest opponent in Group G, France. A win against France would position the U.S. to take the group with all nine points, assuming they can then repeat their handling of Colombia from April, when they were easily triumphant in back-to-back friendlies. Finishing first in group allows the U.S. to avoid the winner of Group F in quarterfinals, likely to be Germany.
Coming out of the New Zealand game, there are some upsides and downsides. Upside: Tobin Heath is still on her NWSL form, where she was kicking ass anywhere and everywhere for the Portland Thorns. Downside: Mal Pugh had a slightly tepid debut and then picked up an ankle knock on top of that, so she may not start or be available against France.
Update on Mallory Pugh's ankle knock: Sore but doing what she needs to do. Jill Ellis will give update tomorrow ahead of France game.— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) August 4, 2016
Upside: The U.S. looks like they don’t need too much more to settle into the tournament groove, as opposed to their slooowwww start in 2015. More upside: it looks like Allie Long and Morgan Brian are both already settled into the midfield, despite it being their first big tournament and return from hamstring injury respectively.
In fact there’s more upsides than downsides coming out of that New Zealand game, which is good, since France will also be confident after handling Colombia 4-0 in their group stage opener. It was a good win from France, who scored in several different ways, including an own goal and a lovely Camille Abily free kick from the top of the 18.
The U.S. was confident in their ball movement in the back, but will need to tighten it up as they move forward in order to break down the French defense. They’ll also be running up against Amandine Henry in the midfield, which may push them wide - which is fine, if Heath and Crystal Dunn can keep the flanks locked down. Heath almost certainly will, while Dunn is a little bit more of a question mark. Perhaps Pugh will see time against France; we’ll see what Jill Ellis has to say about her ankle. Dunn is definitely capable of going a full 90, but if needed, other subbing options include Christen Press, though she’s not at her best when forced out wide instead of allowed to play centrally. (That sound you hear in the distance is the clamoring of Heather O’Reilly fans.)
It’s also uncertain how high Carli Lloyd can afford to push against France; even if they leave two midfielders to shield the back line, with the wingers pushing high and Lloyd acting as a second striker with Alex Morgan, that can leave a big gap in the midfield for France to exploit, and exploit gaps they most certainly will.
Eugenie Le Sommer is an attacker to watch for France. She’s just as good at give-n-go and seeing players making runs as she is at taking the shot herself, and will need to be marked carefully in the box. Better yet if they can cut her off from the midfield, which will partially require the U.S. to control Abily, so often the string-puller for France when she’s not nailing dangerous long range shots.
So: recalibrate the offense (Heath looks like she’s inches from bagging her first goal in this tournament), and lock up the French midfield, which may mean reining Carli Lloyd in a little bit.
USA vs France kicks off on Saturday, August 6 at 4 PM ET and will air on NBCSN and NBC Universo. It’ll also be streaming on NBC’s site.