Blasting a shot from well outside the penalty area is a longshot, hit-or-miss proposition at all levels of the game, but a first-time strike at the edge of the box is a quintessential opportunity.
By converting one such chance, the U.S. women beat Japan, 1-0, on Saturday to start the process of damage repair. The American women had misfired on numerous long shots and produced little else in losing to Norway, 2-0, in their Group G opener Wednesday, but Carli Lloyd's rocket in the 27th minute highlighted numerous good opportunities created against the quick and industrious Japanese, who were outshot, 18-9, but never outplayed.
By winning, the U.S. (1-1-0) moved into second place in Group G with three points. Norway (2-0-0, 6 points) clinched a spot in the quarterfinals with a 1-0 win over New Zealand (0-1-1), which plays the U.S. on the final day of women's group play Tuesday.
A much more cohesive and aggressive U.S. team than the one that surrendered two goals in the opening four minutes against Norway tested Japan often, and might have had another goal or two through forward Amy Rodriguez, who marred an otherwise excellent display by shooting poorly three times. The two breaths of Heather, right back Mitts and right midfielder O'Reilly, were strong going forward and stingy defensively, and captain Christie Rampone kept the center solid behind central midfielders Shannon Boxx and Lloyd.
But out wide, Japan caused problems, and the U.S. had to weather a few scary moments in its own penalty area, especially in the first half when Yuki Nagasatso got in behind the back four. She escaped her markers once to cut a ball across the goalmouth that slipped past a pair of teammates. Mizuho Sakaguchi found enough space to drill a low shot just wide of the post.
Playmaker Homare Sawa clipped a good shot that U.S. keeper Hope Solo tipped over the bar in the 22nd minute; while Solo wasn't as busy as counterpart Mihu Fukumoto between the posts, she came off her line decisively several times to collect through balls in tricky circumstances.
Not Fukumoto, nor any other goalkeeper, could have stopped the U.S. goal. Left back Stephanie Cox got up the left side and nearly reached the corner flag before cutting a diagonal ball that split a pair of teammates and ran right into the path of Lloyd, who smashed it first-time high into the net for her 18th international goal and first in Olympic competition.
The running of Rodriguez, who started up front with Angela Hucles, stretched the Japanese defense from front to back, and O'Reilly's relentless running and dribbling on the right wide unbalanced Japan on numerous occasions. Sent clear three times - by Hucles, O'Reilly and Lloyd - the 20-year-old Rodriguez's shooting failed her on each occasion, yet her movement and workrate got to balls that either led to shots or crosses in a U.S. attack far more fluid and creative than in the first match.
Boxx emulated her central midfield partner's fondness for middle-distance shots by belting a pair; one zipped over the bar and the second forced a flying deflection from Fukumoto, who was credited with five saves.
The U.S. kept the Japanese attackers subdued for most of the second half but in the final minutes they broke loose on the right flank yet again. Shinobu Ohno got to the end line and curled a cross that Karina Maruyama headed well wide only because of a solid jolt from Rampone, who capped her 199th international appearance - and one of her best - with the kind of play a defender, and a captain, needs to make at a critical moment.
A markedly improved effort against a respected opponent is encouraging, but the U.S. will need to be tighter defensively on the flanks and more efficient in its finishing as the competition intensifies. And if it finishes second in Group G, as is looking likely, it will play a world power - the winner of Group F, which includes Brazil and Germany -- in the quarterfinals.
Aug. 9 in Qinhuangdao
USA 1 Japan 0. Goal: Lloyd 27..
USA-- Solo, Mitts, Markgraf, Rampone, Cox (Buehler, 83), O'Reilly, Boxx, Lloyd, Tarpley (Heath, 73), Hucles, Rodriguez (Kai, 86).
Japan -- Fukumoto, Kinga, Ikeda (Arakawa, 82), Iwashimizu, Ando (Maruyama, 62),Yanagita, Miyama, Sawa, Sakaguchi (Hara, 65), Nagasato, Ohno.
Referee: Pannipar Kamnueng (Thailand).