The USWNT will try to extend its stay in the U.K. when it meets a cagey New Zealand side in the Olympic quarterfinals.
Both the United States and New Zealand achieved unprecedented feats in the final day of group stage play. The U.S. won all three of its first round matches for the first time in Olympic history while New Zealand scored its first ever major tournament victory.
Watch the wide areas. New Zealand is home to two of the tournament’s most gifted outside backs in Ali Riley and Ria Percival. Their forward runs add a dangerous and dynamic dimension to the team’s attack. The U.S. defense has been notoriously shoddy this year, but it has generally done well closing down attacks from the wings. Riley and Percival might also be occupied by the likes of Heather O’Reilly and Megan Rapinoe. The success of the Football Ferns might rest on their ability to multi-task.
Look for the U.S. to go the full 90. Can New Zealand follow suit? Remember how the U.S. attack slowed markedly in the closing stages against North Korea? Wambach, Morgan and the ilk could have pressed for a second or third goal. Instead they hung back and absorbed the pressure applied by a desperate North Korean offense. It turns out that was a deliberate move by Pia Sundhage to rest her players. Now that the tournament is in the single-elimination round, don’t expect to see that tactic used again. The U.S. has a knack for delivering the knockout punch in the final intervals of games. Ten of the team’s 25 goals scored since April have arrived in the 60th minute or later. New Zealand typically get off to bright starts, but fade down the stretch. That was the case in its first two Olympic games but could prove fatal in the quarterfinals.
Midfield will be the center of the action. New Zealand’s midfield finally clicked into high gear on Tuesday against Cameroon. 21-year-old Cal Bear Betsy Hassett is quietly bolstering her candidacy for holding midfielder of the tournament. U.S. no. 10 Carli Lloyd has drifted from defensive midfielder to playmaker with a consistent degree of success. New Zealand will need to disrupt the U.S’s improving ground game by clogging up passing channels. There is also news that Shannon Boxx might be available to make a cameo appearance if needed. That could be yet another potentially tricky assignment for the young Ferns to cope with.
Beware of that strike partnership. Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan continue to scale new heights. The pair has chipped in with five of the team’s eight total goals so far. The two have developed an almost telepathic sense of each other’s runs and movements. New Zealand will have to find a way to keep them quiet, which might mean opting for the bunker.
And for New Zealand’s strike force? Okay, so it might have been the final group stage match versus the bottom-ranked team in the tournament, but the Football Ferns finally found their scoring touch on Tuesday. Crucially, target striker Hannah Wilkinson missed the match due to suspension. Her speedy striking foil Sarah Gregorious did well in her absence, scoring New Zealand’s final goal. Wilkinson strained the U.S. defense when the two sides met in a friendly last February. Another bold performance from her could make the difference between an utter blowout and a closely-contested slugfest.
The match kicks off at 9:30 EST on NBC Sports