Carli Lloyd felt like a switch had been turned off. Coach Vlatko Andonovski likened his team’s opening loss in the Tokyo Olympics to Sweden to “a wake-up call.”
Whichever metaphor you prefer, it’s apparent the U.S. women’s soccer team is turned on and fully caffeinated now. And that has its gold-medal hopes back on track too, with a 6-1 win over New Zealand on Saturday night moving the Americans a big step closer to a spot in the tournament quarterfinals.
“We came into Game 2 knowing that you don’t go from being a really great team two days ago to not being a great team anymore,” defender Crystal Dunn said. “We just came in a little bit more relaxed and trusting each other knowing that we’re here and we can get the job done.”
The six goals was the most for the U.S. in an Olympic tournament, while the five-goal margin of victory was the greatest in an American Olympic match.
But just as the team didn’t dwell on the poor effort in the first game, it didn’t celebrate the victory in the second one for long because there’s still a lot of work to do.
“We came here, did the job we had to do tonight,” Andonovski said. “The next thing is Game 3 and all our focus goes to that.
“Every next game that is ahead of us is the most important game.”
Game 3 is Tuesday against Australia and that will go a long way toward determining the Americans’ placing in the Tokyo tournament. With eight of the 12 teams in the field advancing to the quarterfinals, Saturday’s result greatly improves the Americans’ chances of going through to the knockout round. But how it goes through is still to be decided.
With a 4-2 win over Australia earlier Saturday, Sweden is on to the second round and virtually assured of finishing atop the group while the winner of the U.S.-Australia game will advance as the second-place team. The loser will likely move on as well but will face a much more difficult path to a medal.
“We’re not taking anything for granted,“ Lloyd said.
“I’ve been a part of the eight world championships. Won four. I can tell you that we won four because of the mentality. Tonight was a step in the right direction, I still think we have more to give. “
With the U.S. playing every three days in the Tokyo Games, Andonovski switched out half his lineup Saturday, benching five starters including forwards Alex Morgan and Christen Press and inserting Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe up front. That brought a notable change in energy that Lloyd, who played in the center of the front line, was happy to take credit for.
“It’s sort of in my blood to want to progress, to want to play big games under pressure,” she said.
Whatever the reason, the U.S. came out with pace and conviction, if not precision, finding the back of the net six times in the first half, although only two of those counted — a right-footed shot from Rose Lavelle from inside the box in the ninth minute and a header from Lindsey Horan, who was playing in her 100th international game, just before the break.
In between, four goals were erased by offside calls.
“It’s unfortunate,” Lloyd said. “We could have scored more.”
With First Lady Jill Biden among the few observers looking on from the otherwise empty stands in the second half, Lloyd set up the third score, with New Zealand defender Abby Erceg misplaying her header over keeper Anna Leat.
Betsy Hassett pulled that back for New Zealand on a counterattack in the 72nd minute. But New Zealand, playing for just the third time in 16 months, wilted in the heat and humidity of the Japanese summer after that, conceding goals to Press and Morgan, in as substitutes, seven minutes apart before defender CJ Bott knocked in a Press pass in the closing seconds of stoppage time to account for the final score.
For the U.S. that’s a start. But it’s a long way from finished.
“We need to have that switch turned on all the time,” Lloyd said. “We need to be ruthless. It’s really important that whoever’s on the field, we’ve got to just keep your foot on the pedal and go for as long as you can.
“Ruthless mentality, grit and hard fight. That should be a standard thing that you’re doing every game.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.