By Sean Hartnett
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The United States women’s soccer team got off to a flying start at the Rio Olympics, comfortably defeating New Zealand in its Group G opener.
Goal scorers Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan were typically rampant in attack, finding patches of space and finishing with clinical accuracy during the 2-0 victory. The Americans were quick on the break and their formidable backline was as strong as ever.
You would have to look back to 2008 for the last time the U.S. women suffered an Olympic defeat — a 2-0 group stage shocker against Norway. The Americans’ current Olympic winning streak now stands at 12 victories, including three consecutive gold medals.
This team is the machine that keeps on rolling and continues to produce top-level replacements for its retired, aging and unavailable stars. Veterans Abby Wambach, Shannon Boxx, Lauren Holiday and Heather Mitts recently retired and injuries kept 37-year-old defensive stalwart Christie Rampone from boarding the plane to Rio. Meanwhile, key attackers Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez are not participating in this tournament due to pregnancies.
When you add it all together, that’s a ton of goals, creativity and defensive nous that has needed to be replaced. The U.S. roster has undergone significant turnover, fielding 11 Olympic rookies. At just 18, Mallory Pugh was one of six starters to make her Olympic debut on Wednesday night. Pugh and defensive midfielder Allie Long each made their first starts in a senior-level world championship competition.
Morgan Brian, Becky Sauerbrunn, Meghan Klingenberg and Julie Johnston also made their first Olympic starts. Together, Johnston and Sauerbrunn formed an unbreakable central defense pairing against New Zealand. Klingenberg was steady as it gets at left back and sparked numerous attacks down the left wing. Brian was a tireless midfield engine and provided a neat assist on Morgan’s goal when the Americans came out charging one minute into the second half.
All in all, the U.S. women looked confident in all areas of the pitch throughout Wednesday’s Olympic opener, but tougher opponents will soon stand in their way. With France next on the schedule on Saturday, the Americans could clinch a quarterfinal spot with a victory. The third-ranked French routed Colombia, 4-0, in their opener and stand as perhaps the greatest threat to the Americans’ Olympic dominance, given their powerhouse midfield and world class striker, Eugenie Le Sommer.
Looking ahead, the usual suspects will be hoping to end the Americans’ gold medal reign. Led by five-time FIFA World Player of the Year Marta, the Brazilians stand a strong chance of reaching the semifinals. Brazil sits in the weakest group of the tournament with Sweden, China and South Africa as their opponents. Of course, Germany will be among the contenders. The No. 2-ranked team in the world ran roughshod over Zimbabwe in its opener, winning 6-1.
Last summer, head coach Jill Ellis was able to deliver the Women’s World Cup title that had eluded the United States since 1999. Her present challenge is emulating the success of Pia Sundhage, who led the red, white and blue to back-to-back Olympic gold medals in 2008 and 2012.
The Americans are certainly talented enough to extend their gold medal streak to four, but experience and continuity counts for a lot. It will be interesting to see how quickly the new faces jell with the established stars as this tournament rolls on.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey