Aided by U.S. gaffes, South Africa made a game of it

South Africa goalkeeper Roxanne Barker stops a shot by Carli Lloyd, July 9, 2016. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

South Africa goalkeeper Roxanne Barker stops a shot by Carli Lloyd, July 9, 2016. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

On Saturday (July 9), the U.S. women’s team beat South Africa 1-0.

That should never have happened.

The Americans should have won by a touchdown.

Banyana Banyana proved to be a far more competitive opponent than expected, given the chasm between the two teams’ talent, experience and world rankings. (Team USA is No. 1, South Africa, No.  52).

Roxanne Barker, South Africa’s keeper, was outstanding, saving four of six  U.S. shots on goal. (Defender Nothando Vilakazialso also stopped one, clearing a header that Allie Long managed to slip past Barker.) The South Africans, unafraid to pressure high, disrupted the U.S. attack on possession after possession. Their backline was organized and disciplined.

South Africa goalkeeper Roxanne Barker stops a shot by Mallory Pugh, July 9, 2016. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

South Africa goalkeeper Roxanne Barker stops a shot by Mallory Pugh, July 9, 2016. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

Still, the world champs did their part to keep the game close.

With a few exceptions — the defensive line and young, dynamic stars Mallory Pugh and Crystal Dunn — the U.S. women looked lethargic. As they do from time to time, they played down to the level of a weaker competitor, drawing just enough on their enormous talent to escape without a loss.

Alex Morgan got few touches in the final third. Carli Lloyd, returning from a knee sprain sustained in April, looked fit and fresh but did little on the ball. And with Tobin Heath and Morgan Brian held out to rest minor ailments, the play of the U.S. midfield lacked sharpness and creativity.

Christen Press could have put South Africa on the canvas 36 seconds into the game. She broke for the goal on a long pass from Meghan Klingenberg, made a  nifty spin on the ball to shake her last defender in front ot South Africa’s goal … then sent her shot wide.

Christen Press and Janine Van Wyk of South Africa, July 9, 2016. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

Christen Press blew a great early chance to break South Africa’s will. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

One glaring weakness of the young South African team was marking in the box. The wily, athletic  Americans knew when and where to run to open space on corner kicks and crosses.

But then they would miss their shots. Several headers launched by the Americans were just a half-tick off.

Julie Johnston missed one in the 16th minute after sprinting to the near post to meet an incoming corner kick — one of her bread-and-butter offensive move.

Two minutes later, Dunn missed one while wide open on the far post — and then she was called offsides.

Horan missed one in the 42nd minute.

And so it went.

The score easily could have been 4-0 or 5-0 at the half.

The lone goal came in the 35th minute, when Pugh found Dunn with a crisp, low cross.

“This wasn’t a good performance,” Dunn later told Graham Hays of ESPNW.  “But at the end of the day, it’s all about results.”

The U.S. women have one more tune-up before heading to Brazil for the Olympics. They play Costa Rica on July 22 in Kansas City. The game, which kicks off at 8 p.m. CT, is on ESPN.

U.S. fans — and Ellis — should expect a much stronger showing than what the team coughed up on Saturday.  Costa Rica, 29th in the world, is another young, overmatched opponent. The team failed to qualify for the Olympics.

rio2016-groups

The United States is 14-0-0 against Costa Rica. In those 14 games, Team USA scored 78 goals, and conceded four.

On Tuesday, Ellis released her roster for the 2016 Olympics.  That means the players who line up against Costa Rica are the ones who will carry the flag in Rio.

So they no longer have the excuse, heard once or twice after the dud against South Africa, that the squad was distracted by worries over making the Olympic roster.

Julie Stewart-Binks of Fox Sports interviews Hope Solo before the United States played South Africa in Chicago on July 9, 2016.

But whatever happens on June 22, it doesn’t mean a thing, according to Hope Solo.

In a pregame interview Saturday, she told Julie Stewart-Binks of Fox Sports that the U.S. women always find a way to win when it matters most.

“I keep saying that you’re not going to see our best soccer until we make it to the [Olympic] final,” Solo said. “Because we progressively  get better and better with each game that goes by, in any major tournament.”

I hate to quibble with the greatest goalkeeper in the history of women’s soccer — especially when the subject is women’s soccer.

But she’s wrong.

Perhaps she has blocked out all memory of the 2011 World Cup.

Japan's finest hour, July 17, 2011. The team beat the United States on penalty kicks to capture the World Cup. (Reuters)

Japan’s finest hour, July 17, 2011. The team beat the United States on penalty kicks to capture the World Cup. (Reuters)

 

 

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