The United States women's national soccer team needed a little help to get going, but two Russian own goals set them on a path to an 8-0 win on Thursday night, elaborating on the point made during Saturday's 7-0 win over Russia.
Initially planned for Wednesday night, the game on the shiny artificial turn of Atlanta's Georgia Dome was rescheduled because of the inclement weather tormenting the South. But that hardly changed up the narrative from these teams' previous meeting in San Antonio, TX last weekend. Once again, Russia lacked the ambition or indeed the ability to challenge the Americans, instead opting to sit deep and hope for the best.
But in a bland and uneventful first half, the Russians didn't help their own case when Megan Rapinoe whipped in a corner in the 11th minute. It fell to Whitney Engen, who smacked her shot off the post, only for it to carom into the goal off Elena Terekhova.
Even if the score stayed tight for a long while, Russia never gave the impression that they were in this game. And a brief flurry early in the second half put the game away. The USA would score three times between the 51st and 54th minute. Defender Valentina Orlova, under considerable pressure from Abby Wambach, bundled a Rapinoe cross behind her own goalkeeper. Heather O'Reilly picked out Amy Rodriguez - in her first start in more than a year after giving birth - whose tidy volley made it 3-0. Then Rapinoe found Wambach in the clear, after she had run away from all of the defenders, for a simple tap-in.
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Rapinoe deflected a Morgan Brian rip with her head in the 65th to make it 5-0. With the floodgates fully open, the final 10 minutes produced three more goals. Carli Lloyd fed Lauren Holiday in the box, who spun away from her marker, was taken town and converted her own penalty. O'Reilly reacted well to a Christen Press header in the box for the 7-0. And Press set up and smacked in her own goal by weaving through several defenders for the final score in the 86th minute.
The USA had been imperious on the ball all night, putting into action a plan drawn up by head coach Tom Sermanni, who has identified better ball distribution and retention as a key to continued dominance. It took some time for all of that possession to manifest into a goal scored of the Americans' own making though, and that was perhaps the lone point of critique on the night. Insofar as one can criticize anything about an 8-0 win, of course.
And certainly, the below observations fall squarely into the nitpicking category. But when an opponent is so resoundingly outclassed as Russia was by the world's long-time top-ranked team - the USA is now undefeated in 80 consecutive home games, and 42 games overall - the real takeaways lay in the finer nuances.
For the second time in six days, Russia was able to keep the USA at bay for quite some time by clogging the middle of the field. If the Americans are working on becoming a more fluid team, one that's less dependent on long balls and crosses lumped at Wambach in the box, they still relied heavily on the work done up the flanks by Rapinoe and O'Reilly. Centrally, Lloyd remains a dependable two-way player and Brian might well prove the long-term successor to Shannon Boxx, but neither has displayed the ability to set an attacker free with a quick, penetrating pass.
As such, when O'Reilly and Rapinoe weren't connecting with Wambach and Rodriguez, as they mostly failed to in the first half, the real danger came from Rapinoe's set pieces and corners, the latter of which produced the opening goal.
Looking over the horizon to the 2015 Women's World Cup, that is indeed where the biggest need for improvement lay: a diversification in the attacking options. USA forwards Sydney Leroux and the currently injured Alex Morgan have speed to burn, but to exploit it fully, their teammates need to be able to set them free.
Again, these are asides to another glorious, galumphing gazumping. If the US women are your team of choice, there seems little to worry about in this prolonged run of heady days. But when the final objective is to win a third World Cup, and a first since 1999, the devil may yet prove to reside in the tiniest details.