The United States women’s national team’s 1-0 victory over France on Saturday started off great for University of North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance, who couldn’t have been any better.
That’s because all five of the Tar Heels on the USA’s active Olympic roster – Meghan Klingenberg, Tobin Heath, Crystal Dunn, Allie Long and Whitney Engen – were in the starting lineup. Dunn started on the right flank for Mallory Pugh, and Engen replaced Julie Johnston at left center back. Both Pugh and Johnston suffered slight injuries in the opening match and were kept on the bench for precautionary reasons.
Initially excited to see his five players start, Dorrance settled in to watch the U.S. play what is widely considered the next best team in the Olympics.
“Obviously, the French are very good,” says Dorrance. “Their right wing (Marie-Laure Delle) is just a blur, and I thought Kling (Klingenberg) was hanging on by her fingernails in the first half. But as the game wore on, I thought we were a little bit better.
“Still, there were moments in the second half when we were just stressed out of our minds, and you would expect us to be against the team that is, in theory, challenging us for Olympic Gold.”
The difference to Dorrance was that the U.S. was going to do whatever it took to win, that psychological quality synonymous with the American team — a characteristic France does not yet possess, but has long desired.
“I really felt like the U.S. just bore down,” says Dorrance, who was head coach of the U.S. team that won 1991 Women’s World Cup. “I think the quality that separates us is the quality we introduced to the world way back in the late 80s. It’s that indefatigable human spirit that the U.S. women have in spades. When you crank it up, we can go there. And when the game keeps getting cranked up, we can continue to go there. I don’t think there are too many teams that can go there with us.
“One of the things I like about the evolution of the national team is we have tried to keep all the great qualities that all the different U.S. coaches introduced during their period. The mentality is something we introduced from Day One. None of the national team coaches have ever rejected something that has worked for us. We have just kept adding on to our platform.”
France cranked it up, for sure. The athleticism, technique and sophistication of the French players put the U.S. in precarious positions at times, especially on set pieces and corner kicks, where six-foot-two center back Wendie Renard needed constant attention, an unenviable task which fell to Long. Renard also sent dangerous long balls to speedy wingers which forced U.S. backs Klingenberg, Kelley O’Hara, Becky Sauerbrunn and Engen to defend much more than they would choose.
“Sauerbrunn, of course, is just always there,” says Dorrance. “But if you look at Allie Long blow by blow, she had to do a lot of the heavy lifting. On set pieces, she had to mark a giant (Rendard). In possession, especially in the second half, she was a marvel – keeping it, changing the point, sticking people – under tremendous pressure. I really respected what she and Whit did. I thought Whit was very simple with the ball, but she was a rock.
“And I thought Tobin Heath was the best player on the pitch. And she wasn’t one-dimensional,” he adds. “She created the goal, but defensively she was a handful. Her composure in tight spaces against all kinds of pressure, she was tremendous.”
The difference in the game, of course, was Carli Lloyd’s goal, a 63rd-minute rebound created by a five-minute stretch where the U.S. camped out in the French defensive third. It ended with Heath ringing a shot off the post and Lloyd popping in the rebound.
The rest of the game, Dorrance thinks, was pretty much even. Both goalkeepers were required to tip shots over the crossbar, and Solo smothered Delle’s first-half attempt, the best chance of the game, between her thighs. Bouhaddi, France’s goalkeeper, needed to handle an Alex Morgan half-chance shortly before Lloyd’s goal.
“The critics of the U.S. will make it sound like we didn’t play that well,” says Dorrance. “I think you play well relative to who you play against. If you are playing against a team that can also win the event, it’s going to be a game where you don’t sit on them for 90 minutes like the U.S. is accustomed to doing.
“I think France had a little more possession. There were moments when France had us under pressure and we were stressed. You could see it on the faces of our players. And Hope had to play a bit. In most games, she doesn’t.”
Already qualified for the quarterfinals, the U.S. completes group play on Tuesday against Colombia. After showing promise in the 2015 World Cup by defeating France and advancing to the quarterfinals, the Colombians have been a disappointment at the Olympics, losing 4-0 to France and 1-0 to New Zealand. Adding to the encouraging nature of the matchup is that the U.S. easily defeated Colombia twice in Olympic preparation matches.
But the U.S. and Colombia have a volatile history, which started in the 2012 Olympics when Colombia’s talented midfielder Lady Andrade came up beside Abby Wambach and punched her in the face.
Dorrance is pretty sure of what the U.S. will face on Tuesday.
“I remember the last time we played Colombia (in a tournament), they kicked the snot out of us,” he says. “I would expect to see that again. I think that’s the modus operandi for the lower tier teams when they play us.
“When a superior team plays an inferior team, you expect them to sit in and defend. But one of the things I like about Colombia is that have a wonderful kind of arrogance, and they do try to attack. And they actually do a good job. One thing they do is whack the snot out of you, and I’m expecting that from Colombia.”
Tim Nash is a freelance writer and author of the new book, “It’s Not the Glory, the Remarkable First Thirty Years of U.S. Women’s Soccer.” For more information, click here.
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