Here are some thoughts:
So much to say about Mallory Pugh: As the clock approached 90 minutes this was going to be a question about whether Pugh is ready to play 90 minutes of international soccer. For the second straight game Pugh was decidedly less effective after halftime than before. That is no great criticism for a 17-year old. The matches are tough on the body and mind and there is nothing wrong with being an explosive flank player with lightning speed that comes off the bench an hour into an important Olympic match.
And then the 90th minute happened. That was when Pugh took a bouncing ball in the midfield, settled it, and then quickly played a perfect ball through several French defenders and into space for Alex Morgan who ran onto it for the winning goal. Simply put it was a magical play from both players. It is one thing to be able to perform; it is another to have the wherewithal to make the exact right play under pressure after running around for 90 minutes. We already knew Morgan could do it. Now we know that Pugh can as well.
Goalkeeping is not an issue – yet: Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Hope Solo’s game is the ability to come up with world class saves no matter the situation. Whether she’s having a blinder like the 2008 Olympic gold medal match, or picking at weeds while her teammates attack, Solo is always ready for what opponents throw at her when she has a U.S. shirt on. When Marie Laure Delie had what looked like a certain goal at the quarter hour mark, Solo would have been somewhere around 11th on the blame chart regarding how the play broke down. But she still managed to come flying across the goal mouth to make the key save. It was apparent a year ago the regard in which the U.S. held Solo’s play by the way they handled her off-field issues. It was with good reason. Solo is head and shoulders the best keeper Jill Ellis can trot out for a match.
Currently Ashlyn Harris and Alyssa Naeher sit behind Solo with Adrianna Franch likely next in line after that. Either Harris or Naeher figures to be Solo’s backup in Rio with the other one going as an alternate. Harris and Naeher are both very good keepers, but they are also both short on international experience. So why do they get so few minutes in matches the U.S. does not need to win? I can agree that if something happens to Solo, the U.S. chances of another gold are reduced drastically, but it is a bit head scratching why her understudies get so little stage time.
And what about the other subs? Much of the second half social media buzz was about why Jill Ellis waited so long to pull out a sub card. Considering the U.S. midfield got whipped in the first half, Ellis had six available subs, and nine available field players, this seems like a reasonable inquiry. But it was not until the 86th minute when Crystal Dunn and Christen Press became the first U.S. subs off the bench. So where are Jaelene Hinkle, Samantha Mewis, and Heather O’Reilly?
There is something to be said for taking a struggling unit—in this case the midfield—and telling them they have to figure it out instead of rushing to make changes. At the same time this is a three-match-in-seven-day tournament featuring arguably the four best teams in the world. It just seems like a good time to see if some other players are able to make an impact in a high-magnitude match.
France is, France: Most pundits exited the opening match saying France was at least good enough to have earned a draw against Germany (they lost 1-0.) This time around France was far and away better from minutes 10 through 45 and were a few inches, a world class save, and a clean touch away from scoring four times. And yet they had zero. And they have scored zero over two matches. And they just have not been able to make the winning plays to vanquish the world’s best even when the eye test more often than not suggests them to be superior. This is a major issue for Philippe Bergeroo heading to Rio and then preparing to play host to the next World Cup in 2019.
Becky Sauerbrunn actually makes mistakes: Before kickoff Sauerbrunn was honored for reaching 100 caps, a milestone she passed during Olympic qualifying. Then the whistle blew and Sauerbrunn proceeded to play what may have been her worst half as a national team player. The first great France chance that Eugenie Le Sommer scuffed in front of goal was the product of a horrendous Sauerbrunn giveaway. She made several other errors and was out of position on the sequence leading up to Solo’s wonderful save. It does not happen often, which is why it is worthy of a note here when it does.
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