After a narrow 1-0 victory against Japan, the U.S. women's damage control crew did more than patch up bruised egos -- it left formerly muddied white uniforms sparkling somewhat brightly again.
There were talks that the United States had lost its mojo after the first game, and fingers pointed to the puzzling disappearance of the iconic U.S. Soccer Federation crest on team jerseys. The IOC has banned national governing bodies from putting crests on team jerseys; teams like Argentina and Brazil didn't care, opting to pay the fine instead of undercutting national pride.
"[Losing to Norway] stung," goalkeeper Hope Solo after the win over Japan in a U.S. Soccer press release. "It stung deep, that loss. I remember the clock was winding down and I honestly felt sick to my stomach. But [coach] Pia [Sundhage] told us, if you guys are struggling, look at me and my body language and I will lead you through this."
The United States didn't exactly find its mojo-in-a-bottle against Japan, but there were signs of renewed energy and confidence. Finishing is still an issue, and probably will be for the rest of the Olympics, unless the team blows up for a four-goal game. The defense still looks vulnerable at critical junctures, and the midfield is touch-and-go.
Nevertheless, before the United States can look ahead to the quarterfinals, the team has one more task to face on Aug. 12, after moving to Shenyang, China, for the third leg of group play against New Zealand. The upstart New Zealand team is hungry to run with the world's best. Sometimes, a team still green around the edges can make the best of foes.
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|U.S. vs. New Zealand
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"New Zealand is waiting for a big goal in a big tournament so they have big motivation and that is dangerous," Sundhage said. "They are well organized, a little bit of an English style."
Coming off a 2-2 draw against Japan and a 1-0 loss to Norway on Saturday, New Zealand is deadlocked with Japan in Group G at one point.
"I'm still smiling. We have to beat USA to get through and we can do it," New Zealand coach John Herdman said in a FIFA press release after losing to Norway. "There's genuine belief that this team is getting better and better."
Norway already secured a spot in the quarterfinals, and the second slot is still up for grabs between the United States, New Zealand and Japan. Herdman's side will be looking to capture the second entry, if not one of the two wild cards to advance to quarterfinals (the two teams with the best third places finishes out of Group E, F and G will advance). But with one game left, Group G is the least likely to send a third team; Sweden in Group E and Korea DPR in Group F each boast three points.
Strategy aside, given what's at stake, U.S.-New Zealand has the potential to be one of the most physical matches in this women's Olympic group play thus far. Both teams have shown reliance on strength and speed -- even strong-arming opposing players when under duress. This game will be no exception.
The Football Ferns also seem to have brought the fountain of youth to the Olympics, and in good form: Eight of the team's players are 20-years-old or younger, and 24-year-old captain Hayley Moorwood is one of the youngest team leaders in the women's Olympic tournament.
Several of New Zealand's players also have American pedigree as former or current collegiate soccer stars. Striker Ali Riley is a junior at Stanford University, defender Rebecca Smith was a former standout at Duke, Moorwood left Virginia Commonwealth University two years early for an international career, and keeper Jenny Bindon is a graduate of Lewis College outside of Chicago.
The United States will need to be weary of Riley, a quick forward with exceptional endurance, as well as holding attacker Amber Hearn, a former Arsenal player who led the team with six goals in 2008. Midfielder Kirsty Yallop and Shannon Boxx will be the matchup to watch in midfield, but the U.S. should hold the edge in the center of the pitch.
Sundhage may have an early scouting report on the Football Fern's anchor in defense, Rebecca Smith, who has international experience playing in the Swedish Damallsvenskan league since 2005. However, as the eldest in a defensive line that has yet to reach full maturity, Smith and her unit might buckle under the pressure of the final group game and U.S. attack.
"I think the more minutes we get together in the Olympics, the better it is," Sundhage said in a U.S. Soccer press release. "We have 180 minutes now and get 90 more against New Zealand. So we will improve our game from one game to another."
While U.S. has shown better possession after Japan, it would be a stretch to say clean, creative possession will earn the Americans a finesse win over New Zealand. The United States still relied on the long ball against Japan, but credit falls to Amy Rodriguez for converting some of these blind attacks into legitimate scoring opportunities with hustle and explosive speed.
"We got the one goal and we did have some chances and I think as the tournament goes on we are going to finish those chances," said Carli Lloyd, who earned the game-winner against Japan.
Sundhage, however, was ebullient following Lloyd's goal.
"We are aware that we don't have the goal scorer," Sundhage said to USSoccer.com. "That's why we are not [panicking]. We still have created scoring chances and we talk about so much about the center mid. If the center mid with Carli and Boxx are involved in the attack, we will create scoring chances and it is OK to win 1-0."
But one goal a game may not be enough for the U.S. to hang on much longer. Even if the U.S. women advance past group play, as they should, the quarterfinals will most likely pit them against rivals Germany or Brazil. The first stage of the knockout round might very well provide an early climax for the championship game.
Meanwhile, many are wondering where Aly Wagner is. Wagner is riding the pine, yet to see any time in her third Olympics under Sundhage. It'd be nice to see Sundhage make a bold change against New Zealand, inserting Wagner into a midfield that is inconsistent in making the final pass. Also, Tobin Heath has been a bright spot, despite the limited time she has seen, and has the unique ability to open up the field with good position and vision.
New Zealand's stock is rising. The Ferns tied Canada, currently leading Group E with China, in a July 26 friendly, and the team showed dominance in the second half against Norway.
The stage is set for Tuesday, for a game that will decide the U.S. women's future, in the Olympics and beyond. Coach Sundhage's musical "The times they are a-changing" introduction to the Americans might prove auspicious after all.
Lindsey Dolich is a contributor to ESPN The Magazine and covers the U.S. women's national team for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.