Saitama – With the pressure suddenly on, the United States women’s soccer team did what most expected it to do ahead of the Tokyo Games — win.
The reigning world champion shook off Wednesday’s 3-0 loss to Sweden with a 6-1 thrashing of New Zealand on Saturday at Saitama Stadium, leaving the side with plenty of breathing room ahead of Tuesday’s Group G finale against Australia.
“(The Sweden game) wasn’t our best performance obviously, and we came into Game 2 knowing that we don’t go from being a really great team from two days ago to not being a great team anymore,” U.S. defender Crystal Dunn said. “So I think we came in a little bit more relaxed, and trusting each other, knowing that we’re here and we can get the job done.”
Just three days after a blowout loss in which his team looked sluggish and never seemed to find its tempo, U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski arrived at Saitama Stadium looking to make a point, rotating half of his lineup from the Sweden game and giving starts to veteran stars Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd.
“We wanted to be aggressive, we wanted to play with urgency, we wanted to be intense,” Andonovski said. “We came here in this game with the right mentality and the right approach.”
Midfielder Rose Lavelle put the Americans ahead in the ninth minute when she punished New Zealand goalkeeper Anna Leat, making just her fourth senior appearance and first in an international tournament, with a devastating shot from the right side off striker Tobin Heath’s setup.
Despite dominating on the attack and rarely giving the Football Ferns a chance to venture outside their own half, the United States failed to build a bigger lead as four apparent goals were flagged offside — the last requiring video review to determine Lindsey Horan’s head to be slightly past the last defender.
The 27-year-old Portland Thorns midfielder did eventually find the back of the net to commemorate her 100th international game, heading home shortly before halftime to give the United States a lead it seemed unlikely to relinquish in the remaining 45 minutes, especially after First Lady Jill Biden’s arrival to the stadium — which, like most venues in this unusual Olympic Games, was closed to fans due to coronavirus-related concerns.
“I think my approach going into this game, obviously in the back of your head that you’re getting your 100th cap, but I didn’t want that to be a factor today,” Horan said. “My focus was doing whatever I possibly could to help the team win.
“It’s nice to have a fan in the stands too. It’s exciting, it’s great to hear (Biden was there), but my focus is on helping the team win.”
Lloyd, who in April became just the third player in history to reach 300 senior caps, created her team’s third goal with a 63rd-minute header that Kiwi defender Abby Erceg accidentally headed into her own net.
After New Zealand midfielder Betsy Hassett put her team on the scoreboard in the 72nd minute with a close-range strike, American substitute Christian Press put the game away with 10 minutes left when she deftly controlled Julie Ertz’s cross and ended with a clean finish to get past Leat.
Alex Morgan made it 5-1 just minutes later off Christen Press’ assist, while another Press cross resulted in an own goal to end the game.
“For the first 30 minutes of the second half I thought we played exceptionally well, our discipline was good, we got ourselves back in the game at 3-1 and in the last 10 minutes we kind of lost our way a little bit,” New Zealand head coach Tom Sermanni said. “The scoreline is probably not a fair reflection of the game.
“It’s disappointing, but from an effort perspective, I can’t fault the players. They gave blood, sweat and tears out on the field against a quality team.”
In earlier Group G action, Sweden took a dominant step toward the quarterfinals with a 4-2 win over Australia. The back-and-forth encounter was at one point knotted up at 2-2, but forward Fridolina Rolfo’s second goal of the evening as well as a late header by substitute striker Stina Blackstenius were enough to overcome a pair of goals by Matildas captain Sam Kerr.
In their group finales on Tuesday, the United States and Australia will meet at Kashima Stadium, while New Zealand and Sweden will face off at Miyagi Stadium.
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