Yanks Show Depth, Solo Stands Out in France Win
August 07, 2016
THE UNITED STATES women’s national team earned another three points in Olympic group play on Saturday, slipping past France 1-0 in Belo Horizonte.
For most of the first half, Les Bleues looked the more dangerous side and broke through the U.S. defense on several occasions. However, Hope Solo managed to keep France off the scoreboard with several excellent saves in the first 45 minutes.
In the second stanza, the Americans came out with a greater sense of urgency and began to find some seams in the French defense. Then, in the 63rd minute, the U.S. finally found the breakthrough. Morgan Brian picked up a loose ball at the top of the box and slotted Tobin Heath in on goal. Heath’s shot ricocheted off the near post and in front of net where Carli Lloyd knocked home the rebound for the game-winning goal.
Here are three thoughts on the match.
HOPE SOLO GOT IT DONE
Solo earned her 200th cap for the U.S. on Saturday and without her work in the net, the Americans couldn’t have won the contest. The goalkeeper repeatedly kept the French at bay over 90 minutes, including two point-blank stops in the first half and a diving effort to parrying away a headed effort in the 77th minute. She also punched away a series of crosses late in the match as France laid siege to the U.S. goal in search of the equalizer.
In Friday’s pre-match briefing, left back Meghan Klingenberg presciently told the media: Solo “makes big saves when we need her to. When sh** hits the fan and we break down at the end, she makes big saves.”
AMERICAN DEPTH PAYS OFF
With an ultra-compressed schedule of six games in 17 days, winning the Olympic soccer tournament is certainly no easy task. Further complicating matters, rosters are limited to 18 players—five fewer than in the World Cup—which means that team depth is almost always a key factor.
On Saturday, minor injuries to Julie Johnston (groin soreness) and Mallory Pugh (bruise) called the Americans’ depth into question in only the second game of the tournament.
Crystal Dunn replaced Pugh on the wing, while Whitney Engen replaced Johnston at center back. Dunn’s recent run of form made the switch out wide no problem at all, but more than a few U.S. fans expressed reservations about whether or not Engen could get the job done in the back.
Engen hadn’t started a game for the Americans since March 9 and up until the final weeks before the Olympics, most observers expected Emily Sonnett and not Engen to be the team’s back-up option at center back.
However, Engen repaid her manager’s faith in the selection on Saturday and made a nearly seamless transition into the backline. While France certainly did earn some open looks at the U.S. net, none of those opportunities resulted from Engen mistakes.
Consistently underrated, Engen has always played well for the U.S. when needed, including starts in wins against England and Germany over the past two years. Most also forget that a series of strong performances early in 2015 looked to have Engen working her way into the team as a consistent starter.
However, at the 2015 Algarve Cup, Engen suffered a poorly timed hamstring injury that allowed Johnston to slip into the lineup and take her place in the first XI. Johnston played well in that tournament, winning the job on a permanent basis and went on to play a starring role for the U.S. at last summer’s World Cup.
With two games down in group play, the U.S. next heads to Manaus to take on an always-feisty Colombian side on Tuesday. The match should provide head coach Jill Ellis with an opportunity to rotate her squad ahead of the knockout round, especially important considering Manaus’ reputation for sapping team’s strength in the 2014 men’s World Cup.
Two changes Ellis may consider are at left back and in the center of midfield. Meghan Klingenberg struggled against France’s pace down her side, allowing a number of dangerous crosses into the area. That performance, combined with the U.S.’ excellent depth at outside back, should be used to slot Ali Krieger into the starting XI on the right side of the defense and slide Kelley O’Hara over to the left.
Tuesday’s game is also an opportunity to get Lindsey Horan back into the starting XI for either Morgan Brian or Allie Long. Brian had arguably the worst performance of her career on Saturday, disappearing for long stretches and making little noticeable impact on the contest. Long, for her part, earned Woman of the Match honors and distributed the ball well throughout the game. However, Long did poorly on her marking responsibilities and allowed French defender Wendie Renard to slip past her on multiple set-piece opportunities.
With Saturday’s win, the U.S. improved to 16-0-1 in 2016. The team's match against Colombia kicks off at 6pm ET and will be broadcast on NBCSN.
John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.