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Rio 2016: Group Stage

The 2016 Olympic Summer Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil kicked off on Friday night. Before the opening ceremonies, the United States Women’s National Team began their tournament Wednesday in Belo Horizonte, Brazil against New Zealand. “The Gals” then squared off against number three ranked France Saturday afternoon again in Belo Horizonte and Colombia last evening in Manaus. Through three games the USA women’s soccer team had a record of 2-0-1 earning them 7 points and the top spot in their group, Group G. The first place seed sets them up for a quarterfinals match-up with former Coach Pia Sundhage and Sweden on Friday.

In the first match against New Zealand the U.S. came away with a 2-0 win. The goals came from the feet of Carli Lloyd in the 9th minute and Alex Morgan in the 46th minute. The U.S. wasn’t tested much against New Zealand, but that changed quickly when the team played France in their second Olympic Group Stage match.

The U.S. squeaked away from France with a 1-0 win. The game could have gone either way, but France failed to capitalize on multiple scoring opportunities. It also could have ended in a tie, if not for 2015 FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year Carli Lloyd. Lloyd scored off a rebound of a Tobin Heath shot that was saved and hit off the post. France exposed the USWNT back line several times during the match, but U.S. Goalkeeper, Hope Solo, stepped up when needed.

In their third and final group stage match against Colombia last evening, the U.S. succeeded in winning the group but not in the way they would have liked. The game finished in a 2-2 tie with the game tying goal coming from Colombia in the 90th minute. The U.S. fell behind early in the match in the 26th minute when Colombia’s Catalina Usme sent in a free kick that slipped through the five hole of Hope Solo. The U.S. equalized in the 41st minute when Crystal Dunn cleaned up the rebound of a Carli Lloyd shot that was saved and hit off the crossbar. Then shortly into the second half Mallory Pugh beat out several Colombia defenders and kicked the ball through the Colombia defense to the back netting. Her goal came in the 60th minute and put the U.S. up 2-1. Then right before the game went to stoppage time, Catalina Usme again sent in a beautiful free kick from the right side that beat Hope Solo far post. The USWNT failed to hold on for the win and Usme’s brace gave Colombia their first tie against the U.S. after losing their previous 5 meetings. The goals for Dunn and Pugh marked their first ever major tournament goals for the senior national team since both are making their Olympic debuts this summer.

In my opinion, the USWNT is not playing their best soccer. They’re not taking advantage of their scoring chances and their defense doesn’t seem as strong as it was last summer in Canada at the World Cup. Fortunately being as good as they are, they were able to pull out of the group stage with a number one seed. The medal round will be a whole different animal though. If they make it past Sweden on Friday and Brazil beats Australia, the stage will be set for a semi-final between the top ranked team in the world and the host nation. The culture behind the USWNT is a winning mentality. The ladies in the red, white, and blue are going to give it their all to try to win gold for their country. They just need to start peaking to make it a little easier on themselves.

Of note from the group stage, Julie Johnston’s been out with a slight groin injury. Whitney Engen filled in at center back the past two matches. Pugh also took a knock in the first match that kept her out of the France contest. Morgan Brian has seen limited action due to a prior injury. She only played some of the first three matches. Lastly and finally, Megan Rapinoe made her return from being out due to an ACL tear that happened in December. As you can tell, the U.S. has some injury concerns to be aware of going forward too. Hopefully they’ll be able to manage, improve, and secure their third straight Olympic gold.

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The Countdown Continues: European Friendlies

Over the last week and a half the USWNT has been over in Europe training. They also participated in two international friendlies against France and England. As of today there are 110 days until the start of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. But after two less than convincing performances this week, doubts continue to rise about a team long considered a heavy favorite to win this summer’s biggest tournament.

The USWNT played No.3 FIFA-ranked France last Sunday in Lorient in front of a crowd of 15,663. The team failed to put together a strong attack on offense and with some mishaps on defense went down 2-0 shortly into the second half. The France goals came within a minute of each other, as Eugenie Le Sommer headed a cross from Elodie Thomis into the left side of the goal at the 50th minute mark. Then in the 51st minute a bending cross by Jessica Houara found its way to the back netting by bouncing in off the left post. The USWNT had a few chances late in the game, but did not score. Most notably, upon entering the game Abby Wambach was awarded a penalty kick after going down in the box. She failed to convert as France goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi made the diving save to her right. The U.S. ended up falling 2-0 to France.

Besides facing Brazil in December, France will most likely be the best team that the U.S. women face until the World Cup in June. It was a good test for them. It clearly pointed out weaknesses that they need to work on in the coming months. But still with a few less than favorable results in the past few months, the questions keep popping up about the strength of this team and whether or not they’ll be lifting a trophy by the beginning of July.

Yesterday’s match against England provided a slightly better outcome, but still demonstrated that the USWNT has plenty of work to do before June. The red, white, and blue opened the scoring in the 25th minute with a header goal by Alex Morgan off a cross from Lauren Holiday. It was Morgan’s 50th of her international career. The lone goal stood to be the deciding marker of the match in what looked to be a more improved performance by the U.S. squad. England seemed to be holding back for the first half of the game. The second half saw more offensive chances for them though. In the 56th minute, England would have tied the match after a strike from Fran Kirby was knocked off the crossbar by USWNT goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris (playing for the suspended Hope Solo which is another story in itself). The rebound of the save found the feet of England’s Jodie Taylor and she placed the ball in the back of the net. However, Taylor was ruled to be offside. From there, England failed to threaten the American defense until stoppage time when U.S. defender Ali Krieger headed a dangerous cross away to solidify the win for the United States.

Although improvements were made from the game against France and the United States seemed to maintain better possession and create more offensive opportunities, the score didn’t indicate such a dominant performance. And really, it wasn’t. After the Morgan goal, the USWNT looked the most comfortable they had been since going overseas. They created plenty of scoring chances in their attacking third until the end of the first half (the attack seemed to slow a bit for the final 45). The midfield looked much better than it did in the match against France. Ali Krieger, who played as a sub in the France match, started the game against England and seemed to be an added improvement in the U.S. defense. But, (and this is a big but) England isn’t France. France created so much more efficient counters on the United States. Their midfield proved to be more dominant than England (and the U.S. for that matter). Their defense handled the offensive attack that the U.S. tried to initiate. Even England’s overall size is smaller compared to France. So it makes sense that the U.S. would have performed a bit better. However, the game could have easily ended in a tie. So the outcome, even though it was a 1-0 win, could have been better for the USWNT, and is a good indication that there is still a lot of work to be done for a team that seemed destined for World Cup glory.

In two weeks the USWNT will begin the Algarve Tournament in Portugal where they face off against Norway (March 4th, 2 p.m. ET), Switzerland (March 6th, 12 p.m. ET), Iceland (March 9th, 1:30 p.m. ET), and another yet to be determined opponent (March 11th, Time TBD). Following the tournament, only 4 friendlies remain until June 8th when the U.S. opens their World Cup group play against Australia. So far, this ride to the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup has been rocky, but I still plan on following this team every step of the way and updating on each triumph and downfall. Only time will tell what will happen in June. Will they achieve the greatness they have been searching for since 1999? I still believe. Do you?