The United States women’s national team rounded off the Olympics group stage by beating North Korea 1-0 Tuesday at Old Trafford in Manchester. It was the first time the U.S. women have progressed to the knockout rounds with three group wins.
Forwards Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach combined on 25 minutes to punish hesitant goalkeeping from Olympic debutant O Chang-Ran. Morgan chased Lauren Cheney’s long pass over the Korean defense and was able to control the ball deep inside the penalty area while Chang-Ran remained rooted in her six-yard box. Morgan coolly rolled the ball between two recovering defenders for the unmarked Wambach to slot into the teenage goalkeeper’s bottom left corner.
Pia Sundhage’s side dominated the first hour, but their inability to increase their lead provoked a nervy finish as North Korea chased the tie that would have edged them into the quarter-finals at New Zealand’s expense.
Sundhage’s formation remained unchanged – 4-4-2 with the prolific Morgan and Wambach in attack. There was one personnel change from last Saturday’s 3-0 win over Colombia – Amy Le Peilbet returned at right-back in place of the veteran Heather Mitts.
North Korea Head Coach Sin Ui-Gun made four changes following his team’s 5-0 dismantling by France in their second group game.
Chang-Ran replaced Jo Yun-Mi in goal and Pong Son-Hwa came in at right-back for Yun Song-Mi. Kim Chung-Sim and Kim Song-Hui, second-half substitutions against France, started in a five-man midfield with Choe Mi-Gyong and Kim Un-Hyang dropping to the bench.
U.S. Stamps Its Authority In Opening Minutes
North Korea’s defensive vulnerability appeared in the second minute when Megan Rapinoe skipped past a couple of erratic challenges before delivering a cross from the left wing. Chang-Ran should have claimed an easy catch, but the 19-year-old spilled the ball behind for the game’s first corner.
Chang-Ran performed better on five minutes, scuttling across her line to push Morgan’s shot around the post after the U.S. striker made a cutting diagonal run on to Carli Lloyd’s poke through North Korea’s defense.
Few women possess a sharper turn around the opponents’ penalty box than Morgan. The Seattle Sounders forward wheeled into space for a right-foot shot on seven minutes. Her effort was quickly charged down by center-back Choe Yong-Sim.
The U.S. almost opened the scoring on 15 minutes after a sweeping move down the left following Rapinoe’s quick throw. Morgan laid the ball wide to Wambach who marauded down the touchline, evading Kim Myong-Gum’s desperate slide, before returning the ball to her strike partner at the edge of the box. Morgan’s first touch was exquisite, shifting the bouncing ball into a shooting position while turning Ri Ye-Gyong in the process. Her second touch was a low drive that rebounded off Chang-Ran’s left post.
Direct Route Breaks Down Korean Defense
Ui-Gun’s side showed little ambition in the opening stages, opting to sit all 10 outfield players in their own half as the U.S. started their attacks. Lone forward Yun Hyon-Hui dropped wide as an outlet when North Korea retrieved the ball. Her teammates were hesitant to push forward when in possession, typically leaving just three or four attackers trying to break down the U.S.’ two banks of four.
Korea’s defending lacked discipline despite their numerical advantage. Slide tackling is usually preserved for the last-ditch, desperate defender who isn’t close enough to their opponent. The Koreans went to ground even when the circumstances didn’t require it, conceding space as the U.S. players skipped away from these frivolous challenges. At times, the action resembled a computerized soccer game with ravenous, trigger-happy teens pummeling the consoles.
Strangely, given the balance of play, the U.S.’ goal came via a counter-attack. Rachel Buehler cut out a long pass toward Song-Hui and retained possession to set her team in motion. Lloyd carried the ball into midfield before slipping a pass to Cheney deep in the inside-right channel. Her early long ball found Morgan running into the penalty area behind Kim Nam-Hui, though Chang-Ran should have been further off her line to thwart the danger.
Korea’s young goalkeeper should easily have saved Wambach’s header four minutes after the deadlock was broken. Instead, Chang-Ran fumbled the ball around the post for another corner. Cheney shot over the crossbar from the ensuing scramble.
The goal frame denied the U.S. again on 39 minutes. Lloyd made a great run in support of Morgan as Cheney slid a forward pass to the 23-year-old striker. Morgan kept the ball moving into Lloyd’s path, and her shot from the left corner of the penalty box deflected off Yong-Sim into Wambach’s reach. The Rochester, N.Y. native slid to make contact, diverting the ball out of Chang-Ran’s reach but against the far post. Heather O’Reilly blasted the rebound into the side net as Chang-Ran and Jon Myong-Hwa closed in.
Lloyd was finding space around the edge of the box as the North Koreans failed to track her movement. Eight defenders stood watching as the Rutgers University graduate skied her shot over the bar shortly before half-time.
Sundhage brought on Tobin Heath for the ineffective Rapinoe at the interval. The substitute wasted another chance to solidify the U.S.’ lead on 49 minutes. O’Reilly’s excellent tackle on Ye-Gyong deep inside North Korea’s half set up a quick attack with Wambach and Morgan working the ball left to the overlapping Heath inside the penalty area. A quick shot with the inside of the right foot toward Chang-Ran’s far corner seemed certain to find the goal. Heath let the ball roll across her body to her left side, significantly narrowing her angle, before clipping the ball over the goalkeeper and crossbar.
Sloppy U.S. Almost Pegged Back In Closing Stages
Sundhage’s side had kept their opponents within touching distance, and the Koreans’ spirit of adventure materialized in the last 30 minutes as they chased the point that would ensure their progress. U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo could have spent the first hour updating her Twitter feed. Now she was being called into action.
North Korea’s first threatening attack arrived on 65 minutes when Kim Su-Gyong, who’d replaced Hyon-Hui as the lone striker after 31 minutes, spun away from Buehler in the center circle and evaded Lloyd’s attempted tackle. Suddenly the Koreans had three players moving forward against four defenders – their most favorable odds of the game. Su-Gyong’s blocked shot deflected left to Ye-Gyong’s feet, and her looping cross forced Solo to bravely catch the ball under pressure from Chung-Sim’s raised boot.
Chung-Sim picked the ball up deep on the right two minutes later and floated a perfect switch to Ye-Gyong on the left corner of the penalty box. The midfielder created space outside Le Peilbet to fire in a low shot that had Solo scrambling across her line to make sure it didn’t squirm in off the wet turf.
Ui-Gun urged him team to press further up the field, and defensive midfielder Choe Un-Ju started to push forward in support of Su-Gyong. North Korea’s task became more difficult on 81 minutes when Mi-Gyong, a second-half substitute for Song-Hui, was dismissed for two bookings within a four-minute spell. The 21-year-old forward had added energy to the Korean side – too much energy. Her cautions came for needless, overly enthusiastic lunges at Lloyd and Cheney in the midfield.
There was one final effort from North Korea on 86 minutes. Christie Rampone’s clearing header from a deep free kick dropped to the edge of the box where Un-Ju fastened onto the loose ball. Her effort sailed harmlessly over Solo’s crossbar, extended the goalkeeper’s shutout streak to 256 minutes.
This was another indifferent performance from the two-time defending Olympic champions. Sundhage’s defense was never seriously stretched, but the U.S.’ failure to add a second goal meant the prospect of a North Korean equalizer lingered until the final whistle.
Ui-Gun’s tactics almost paid off. His players’ tenacious fighting spirit kept them within reach of their target. Ultimately, New Zealand grabbed the final quarter-final berth and will face the U.S. on Friday at Newcastle United’s St. James’ Park.