WEST BROMWICH, England (AP) – On a day when fans packed Rio Tinto Stadium to send off the US women's Olympic team with a show of support and sentimentality, head coach Pia Sundhage provided a reminder that the business of international soccer has little room for sentiment.
The final warm-up match before the Olympics revealed what we already knew for some time. Sundhage has made the transition from long-time national team standouts Carli Loyd and Heather O'Reilly to younger and quicker midfield options Lauren Cheney and Tobin Heath.
Cheney and Heath were in the starting lineup once again while Lloyd and O'Reilly, two stars of the US's past two Olympic title-winning teams, were left on the bench. There was no confusion about the message Saturday's lineup sent: Sundhage selected her first-choice squad to face Canada.
That starting squad didn't exactly light it up offensively on Saturday, with the brutal heat and Canada's tough defending forcing the USA to squeeze out a 2-1 victory courtesy of an 85th minute Amy Rodriguez goal.
Sundhage's preferred starting lineup played 45 minutes and failed to find the net, though Megan Rapinoe's cross did force Canada's Carmelina Moscato into a volleyed own goal. The Americans controlled the action, increased their work rate and the defensive work of their midfield left Canada struggling for any sort of possession. That control didn't translate into chances for the US, and an attack that had scored 11 goals in three games over the past month suddenly struggled to put together dangerous chances.
One of the few clear bright spots for the Americans on Saturday was Rapinoe, who was dangerous in the attack and relentless on the defensive side. Her crosses helped produce both US goals, and her work helped wear out a Canada defense that had few answers for her speed and skill. Despite being part of a US midfield that's in transition, Rapinoe looked every bit like a player ready to take on a more important role in Sundhage's new-look lineup.
Neither Cheney or Heath put much of a stamp on the game, though Cheney once again showed the flashes of skill that make her an exciting central midfield option than Lloyd at the moment. Lloyd and O'Reilly came in the second half, and each had some good moments. It was Lloyd's sharp pass that sprung Rapinoe on the sequence that led to the winning goal. O'Reilly showed off her trademark speed as well, though she didn't quite do enough to make Sundhage's decision to bench her look like a mistake just yet.
The transition to Cheney and Heath will come as a surprise to some, though more because of the lengthy resumes of Lloyd and O'Reilly, and how important they have been in previous Olympic tournaments. Lloyd's gold-medal winning goal in the 2008 Olympic final is one of the most important goals in American soccer history, while O'Reilly's game-winning goal against Germany in the 2004 Olympic semifinals was a pivotal moment during the USA's march to the gold medal.
Those amazing moments shouldn't be forgotten, but Sundhage's job isn't to reward past accomplishments. She has to field the best lineup she can, and she has decided that Cheney and Heath make the team better and more dangerous than Lloyd and O'Reilly.
Sundhage has made it clear that she wants the American team to be more dangerous, more skilled, and to play a more technical style. A lineup that features a midfield including Cheney, Rapinoe and Heath gives the United States the kind of technical quality to match up with any team.
Ultimately, the USA's bread and butter are star forwards Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach, and feeding them a steady stream of service is vital to keeping the American attack rolling. The younger midfield Sundhage has settled with should be capable of providing that service, and give the Americans a good chance of opening the Olympics with a victory when they face a talented French national team.
Does this mean we have seen the last of Lloyd and O'Reilly as key contributors? You cannot go that far quite yet. In a tournament like the Olympics, with its small roster and tight schedule, opportunities should come for both of the New Jersey-born veterans, and it's a safe bet that being benched will only serve to motivate both of them to take full advantage when those chances arrive.
Saturday's team performance wasn't dominant, but it was effective and useful. Sundhage had another chance to see the experimental 3-4-3 formation she has tried late in recent matches, only this time with the team actually under pressure to find a goal. The unit responded with Rodriguez's late goal, which came off a Rapinoe cross that bounced around in the area before falling to Rodriguez for the finish.
The US women avoided potential disaster after Alex Morgan left the match with a knee injury. Early indications are that the star striker just twisted her knee, and her immediate removal from the match was just a precautionary measure.
With Morgan healthy, and Sundhage's preferred starting lineup now established, the team can now turn their attention to London, and preparing for the July 25 showdown against France. Sundhage has established a starting lineup she feels can win a gold medal, and it will now be up to new starters Cheney and Heath to reward their coach's confidence.
If the two young midfielders step up, Sundhage will look like a genius and the Americans will go a long way toward their dream of a third-straight Olympic gold. But if either Cheney or Heath falter, you can bet Sundhage won't hesitate to call on Lloyd and O'Reilly, who will surely be eager to prove they still have more magic Olympic moments to deliver.