Carli Lloyd’s goal to defeat France on Saturday won’t make any of the U.S. captain’s career-highlight reels. It was a simple, unbothered tap-in from a handful of steps away from the net in the 63rd minute. The midfielder already has a World Cup hat trick and two Olympic gold-medal winners to her name, so a goal to win a group-stage match won’t add much to her legacy. But the play that led to Lloyd’s goal, the lone score in a 1–0 U.S. win, tells the story of how the U.S. women’s national team grapples with scoring in the post–Abby Wambach era. Tobin Heath created the opportunity with a low strike off the goalpost that ricocheted to Lloyd, and it shows the USWNT’s hopes for an Olympic three-peat might sit on the energetic tips of Heath’s cleats.
Playing in her third Olympics and taking on her biggest role yet for the national team, Heath doesn’t resemble many other American attackers. They tend to dominate with physical skills more than they outperform their opponents with on-ball wizardry. In recent years, U.S. goals have come from players relying on power (Wambach), speed (Alex Morgan), or both (Carli Lloyd). With Heath and Crystal Dunn in the midfield, however, the USWNT in 2016 has flair and creativity in attack, giving the team an untapped dimension to diversify the offense.
It’s mostly forgotten because the team scored five goals in the 2015 World Cup final, but the Americans struggled to create consistent chances in last year’s tournament. With Morgan hampered by injury and Wambach slowed by age, the team had just two on-target attempts in its second group game — a listless 0–0 draw against Sweden — and managed just a single nonpenalty goal in each of its next four contests.
With clean sheets in all of those games, the team was never explicitly in danger of losing, but it never looked quite comfortable either. That same sense of offensive disharmony persisted through the team’s first two games at these Olympics. The U.S. tallied just five shots to France’s 14, with two on-target attempts to France’s six. France has been hailed as the world’s next big thing for a couple summers now, and on Saturday, they showed why. They matched the U.S. stride for stride and inch for inch; in some instances, Les Bleues actually beat the Americans at their usual strengths.
But while the American defense held the clean sheet — if precariously at times; watch your set-piece marking, back four — the attack sputtered and stumbled when the team played long balls or tried to run by the French midfield. That’s where Heath came in.
Heath’s feet are always moving — always active — and so far this tournament, she’s paired those tactical efforts with a downhill mindset, using her moves productively rather than dancing on the ball for dancing’s sake and holding up the attack. In the 29th minute, she led a U.S. charge toward the French net, zagging between opponents and opening up rare space in the midfield, eventually generating a free kick at the top of the box.
In the 85th, she found herself trapped by a pair of defenders near the left corner and delighted the crowd — first with a step over, then a flurry of rapid scissor moves — before lofting a pass to a teammate and resetting the team’s spacing.
The same approach manifested in the U.S.’s first goal of the tournament, Lloyd’s ninth-minute header against New Zealand on Wednesday. Lloyd placed the header, but Heath created the opportunity. She maneuvered away from one defender with a cutback, faked out a second with a hesitation dribble, and dragged the ball with the outside of her foot to trick the first defender into tackling air. With fewer than three seconds of play on the ball, she opened up enough room to launch an uncontested cross toward Lloyd.
The U.S. is now a sure thing to reach the knockout stages, and pending a surprise loss to Colombia in the final group game, the team shouldn’t face a real challenge until the semifinals. But there, they might meet France again, or Germany or Canada, and they may not be able to overpower teams or run by them anymore. The rest of the world is catching up physically, so it’s time for Jill Ellis’s squad to add a new element to its tactical plan. It’s time for the Queen of the Nutmeg to wear her crown.