By thrashing New Zealand, 4-0, to win Group G the U.S. women have not only avoided Brazil and Germany in the quarterfinal round and given themselves one more opportunity to sharpen their game, they've also ducked the possibility of playing both of their major obstacles to the gold medal.
Instead, if form holds in the quarterfinals, Brazil and Germany would meet in one semi. Should the U.S. beat rival Canada, which lost to China, 2-1, and finished third in Group E, in its quarterfinal, the Americans would play either Japan or China in the penultimate round. As daunting a prospect as it would be to play the host nation should they advance to the semis, or even the pesky Japanese, the Americans would greatly prefer either of them to the Brazilians or Germans.
Heather O'Reilly stunned the Kiwis with a long-range drive that flew into the net just 40 seconds into the match. Amy Rodriguez scored a vital second goal shortly before halftime and Lindsey Tarpley and Angela Hucles added goals four minutes apart early in the second half for a convincing, and confidence-building win. The U.S. finished with a 2-1-0 record, the same as Norway, and took first place with a goal difference of plus three (five goals scored, two conceded).
Improbably, Norway wound up second in Group G on goal difference (minus one) after Japan inflicted a 5-1 pounding, and as the runner-up team is placed on the same side of the bracket as the 2007 World Cup finalists. Brazil plays Norway and Germany meets Sweden on that side of the final eight.
All four quarterfinals are scheduled for Friday. The winners meet Monday in the semis.
O'Reilly latched onto a Carli Lloyd knockdown of a goal kick at midfield, looked up as she pushed the ball forward, and struck a right-footed shot from about 30 yards that sailed over keeper Jenny Bindon, who had stayed off her line after booting the ball upfield.
The Americans' pace and pressure kept New Zealand off-balance through the first half but not until the 43rd minute could they turn that superiority into another goal. Good approach work had created a few opportunities, yet a long ball yielded the chance. Defender Rachel Buehler, a late replacement for an ill Kate Markgraf, controlled a throw-in and from her own half belted the ball upfield for Rodriguez to race behind the New Zealand back line and drill a low shot just inside the far post.
Tarpley smacked home a rebound during a furious goalmouth scramble and Hucles cashed in a touch from O'Reilly after a great effort by Lori Chalupny came back off the crossbar. Hucles's shot on the turn slipped through Bindon's hands to round out a strong offensive performance by the Americans.
New Zealand tested the U.S. back line a few times but its midfielders seldom teed up the ball within scoring range, and forwards Emma Kete and Amber Hearn weren't able to evade tackles at the critical moment.
Against a spirited but overmatched and disjointed opponent, the U.S. took advantage of early momentum to attack in a variety of ways. Up front, Rodriguez and Hucles played more in sync with each other, both Tarpley and O'Reilly pierced the Kiwi defense often from the flanks, and left back Chalupny attacked repeatedly. Shannon Boxx and Lloyd anchored the middle, and Lloyd's ability to win balls in the air set up a goal for the second time in this competition.
Central defenders Buehler and Christie Rampone crossed signals once or twice without being punished. That facet of play and few others need sorting out against Canada, which won't be nearly so forgiving as New Zealand, but the Americans will be buoyed by the knowledge they need play, at most, only one of their toughest challengers to retain the gold medal.
Aug. 12 in Shenyang
USA 4 New Zealand 0. Goals: O'Reilly 1, Rodriguez 27, Tarpley 56, Hucles 60.
USA -- Solo, Mitts (Cox, 63), Buehler, Rampone, Chalupny, O'Reilly (Wagner, 76), Boxx, Lloyd, Tarpley, Hucles, Rodriguez (Kai, 56).
New Zealand -- Bindon, Percival, Erceg, Smith, Oostdam (Hill, 64), Hoyle (Green, 64), Moorwood, Yallop, Riley, Heam (Tegg, 74), Kete.
Yellow cards: New Zealand -- Oostdam 46, Heam 55.
Referee: Dagmar Damkova (Czech Rep.)