U.S. women get a wakeup call
QINHUANGDAO, China -- Who said amateurism was a dying concept at the Olympics?
The U.S. women's soccer team turned the first five minutes of its Olympic opener against Norway into amateur hour on Wednesday, giving away two goals in a 2-0 loss that raised new questions about the direction of the U.S. women's program. To wit:
Is this what an expensive residency program unmatched by any team in the world gets you? Why does the U.S. continue posting amazing records outside major tournaments (21-0-1 in 2008) only to falter when it counts? And after spending six months in California and nearly two weeks in China preparing for these Games, how could the U.S. not be ready to play in the first 10 minutes of the Olympics?
"We basically gave them those goals," said U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo.
"I think the first 10 minutes we were a little bit not ready," said midfielder Shannon Boxx.
All is not lost, of course. The U.S. can still qualify for the knockout rounds with positive results in an easy group against Japan and New Zealand. (In this 12-team tournament, even teams that finish third in their four-team group can advance.) For her part, defender Kate Markgraf noted that Norway lost its first game in the 2000 Olympics only to come back and win the gold medal.
But this was a troubling defeat all the same. With star forward Abby Wambach out for the Olympics with a broken leg, the U.S. needed to prove from the start that it could win without its top goal-scorer. The Americans had cruised in a 4-0 friendly victory at Norway just a few weeks ago (with Wambach on the field), and they came into Wednesday's game with a 10-match winning streak against their onetime rivals.
Yet the U.S. found itself down 2-0 after a shocking first three-and-a-half minutes. In the second minute Leni Larsen Kaurin beat Solo to a cross in the box and nodded home the first goal. Two minutes later Melissa Wiik ran onto Markgraf's errant back pass and doubled the Norwegians' advantage.
To their credit, the U.S. players resisted pointing fingers or concocting excuses afterward. "She played a perfectly placed ball that forced me to make a decision: Come or go?" Solo said of the first Norwegian goal. "I made the decision to come and unfortunately got beat to the ball."
"The second goal was totally my fault," Markgraf said. "I didn't play the ball back hard enough to Hope and I didn't clear the player either ... I definitely didn't help the situation when we were already one down."
While the Yanks recovered to create some second-half scoring chances ("It was a very even match except for those first 10 minutes," Boxx argued), forwards Natasha Kai, Angela Hucles and Amy Rodriguez couldn't find the finishing touch that Wambach has provided so often over the years. (However, Rodriguez showed enough spark in her second-half appearance that she should probably start ahead of Hucles against Japan here on Saturday.)
After the final whistle, Pia Sundhage (who'd just suffered her first defeat as the U.S. coach) gathered her players around her on the field. They stayed longer than most teams do after a game, partly in shock, perhaps, after only the U.S.' second defeat in the 14-year-history of Olympic soccer. (The first came in the '00 gold medal game, also against Norway.)
"She said that we had about 17 minutes of good soccer," Solo said. "And we'd better every single one of us find a way to play 90 minutes of good soccer. We're making it tough on ourselves, but we're a winning team and she knows that."
"You always have second chances in the round-robin tournaments," said Markgraf. "So we just have to take care of business, hopefully have great games against Japan and New Zealand and get into the quarterfinals."
At this point what matters isn't which opponent that might be. What matters for the U.S. is simple survival.