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LONDON OLYMPICS

U.S. women's soccer relies on strong defense in 2-0 win over New Zealand

U.S. women's soccer team shuts out another opponent — beating New Zealand on Friday — on its way to the semifinals of the London Olympics.

August 03, 2012|By Kevin Baxter
  • U.S. midfielder Lauren Cheney, center, controls the ball between New Zealand's Rebecca Smith, left, and Ria Percival during Team USA's 2-0 victory at the London Olympic Games on Friday.
U.S. midfielder Lauren Cheney, center, controls the ball between New Zealand's… (Stanley Chou / Getty Images )

NEWCASTLE, England — Perhaps one reason Hope Solo has had so much time to spend on Twitter during these Olympic Games is because she hasn't had much to keep her busy on the field.

"I haven't really been tested," the U.S. goalkeeper complained Friday after posting her third consecutive shutout, this one in a 2-0 victory over New Zealand that sends the Americans on to next week's semifinals. "I'm still waiting. That's what happens when you get to be No. 1 in the world."

It doesn't really matter whether Solo's reference was to the U.S. women's soccer team or just its defense because the adjective works either way. And, frighteningly for opponents, both seem to be getting better. Friday's win not only moved the Americans to within a victory of their fifth consecutive Olympic final, but it also extended the team's scoreless streak to 346 minutes, dating to the 14th minute of its opening match.

PHOTOS: London Olympics, Day 7

"When we're scoring goals, I know our defense has the utmost confidence in themselves," U.S. forward Abby Wambach said. "They've proven over the last three games that they're one of the best defenses in the world."

Speaking of scoring goals, Wambach gave the U.S. the only one it would need in the 27th minute, tapping home a nifty pass that Alex Morgan threaded through a pair of New Zealand defenders to her front-line teammate just inside the far post.

The goal was the fourth in as many games for Wambach. More significant, perhaps, is the fact that the U.S. has lost just twice in 99 games in which Wambach has scored.

Sydney Leroux, a late second-half substitute, added an insurance goal anyway, completing a breakaway up the left wing by driving the ball between the legs of New Zealand keeper Jenny Bindon. And given that the U.S. defense hasn't allowed more than two goals in a game since May 2008, Leroux's goal would prove more than enough.

"The team is defending well. We've been consistent with some of the players in the back," U.S. Coach Pia Sundhage said, pointing to Rachel Buehler and Christie Rampone, who have combined to play all but 15 minutes of the first four U.S. games. "They make players around them better."

PHOTOS: U.S. women's soccer vs. New Zealand

Four months ago Sundhage probably figured if she was talking about their defense during these Olympics it wouldn't be in positive terms. The U.S. team lost starter Ali Krieger during January's Olympic qualifying tournament when she tore two ligaments in her left knee. And four months later longtime assistant coach Erica Walsh left to care for her mother, who was battling cancer.

So Sundhage added Tony Gustafsson to the staff, putting him in charge of a back line in transition. Now, Solo said, it is Gustafsson who deserves much of the credit for making that unit strong.

"He is … straight to the point," said Solo, who has had to make just seven saves in her three shutouts. "We know exactly what he wants out of us so there's no gray area: 'This is your job; this is what you need to do.'

"You feel like a unit out there because everybody is covering everybody."

The next team that will try to challenge Solo is Canada, which will meet the U.S. in Monday's semifinal at historic Old Trafford in Manchester. Canada advanced Friday with a 2-0 quarterfinal win over Great Britain.

In the other semifinal Monday, France will play Japan at Wembley. On Friday, France beat Sweden, 2-1, and Japan beat Brazil, 2-0.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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