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USA 1 - 0 France: 3 things we learned

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Carli Lloyd comes up big again in a tough one goal victory

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

The United States beat France 1-0 in an often sloppy, lethargic win. The lone goal of the match came in the 63’ when Carli Lloyd capitalized on Tobin Heath’s shot rocketing off the post and falling to her feet right in front of goal. When she slotted home the goal she became the first United States player to score multiple goals in three separate Olympic games. The goal was a clutch one but nothing less than expected for the most clutch player in United States history.

Crucial to the preservation of the 1-0 victory was an absolutely talismanic performance by Hope Solo in her 200th appearance for the United States. Many predicted the boos and zika chants raining down on her from Brazilian fans would galvanize her performances and she did not disappoint, making five huge saves on the way to her second straight shutout of the tournament. At the end of the day an ugly win is still three points and the United States remain top of the table in Group G.

Tobin Heath continues NWSL form

This is the Tobin Heath we’ve all been waiting for since she burst onto the international scene as a teenager. At 28, it looks like she’s finally combined her scintillating skill set with the soccer IQ of a truly elite international player. Gone are the days where she’d rely heavily on skill and flash, standing on the ball too long and missing the runs her teammates were making. Now she’s learned to pass the ball within the flow of the game and take her chances when they come. Lloyd’s goal was a direct result of Morgan Brian’s patient ball to Heath and Heath’s presence of mind to take her chance and shoot the ball near post.

Further, she’s become the primary set piece taker for the United States and it is only a matter of time before one of her threatening services is converted. If not for a fingertip save by goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi, Heath might have scored her first Olympic goal against France. If Heath can continue this form into the knockout stages, the United States will be in good shape.

Set pieces, set pieces, set pieces

If you read that with the exhaustion and ire of Alexi Lalas’ voice, good job, you’re on the right track. Perhaps the most unexpected challenge for the United States against France was their complete ineptitude on defensive set pieces. Traditionally set pieces, both offensive and defensive, are considered a strength for the United States. Not against France. More than once, the French used a combination of picks and overlapping movement to baffle the set piece defense of the US.

Wendie Renard, who had a stunning game for the French, flashed open more than once after losing her mark and the United States was lucky to not concede on one of those chances. A combination of near misses and Solo’s brilliance preserved the score at 0-0 long enough. Just because the United States wasn’t punished during this game doesn’t mean that future opponents won’t scout this weakness and look to exploit it later in the tournament.

It should be noted that a potential cause for confusion could have been the insertion of Whitney Engen into the lineup for Julie Johnston, who was being rested due to groin tightness.

Width and tempo

One of the keys to success in Jill Ellis’ system involves the outside backs pushing up into the attacking third and providing width and dangerous balls into the box. Because of the speed of the French attackers, specifically Kadidiatou Diani and Marie-Laure Delie, Kelley O’Hara and Meghan Klingenberg were pinned into their own defensive third for much of the match. Without the outside backs pushing into the attacking half of the field, the United States becomes far too narrow to be able to attack effectively. Too much of the game was spent trying to force the ball down the middle of the pitch to little effect.

Compounding this problem was the lack of passing tempo and inventive off the ball movement. Too often we saw United States players standing on the ball looking for a teammate to show for the ball and when limited options presented themselves the ball was played backward. This allowed the French team to pick the ball off and possess in the United States defensive third for much of the match.

A tertiary concern is that this meant the United States spent much of the match chasing the ball. Many of these players have played two difficult 90 minute matches in the space of four days. Even with an injection of youth, the United States are still the oldest team in the tournament with an average age of 27.5 years old. With their next match coming up on August 9 against Colombia in the humid rainforest of Manaus, look for Jill Ellis to rotate her squad to rest heavy legs and keep her players fresh for the quarterfinal.