Carli Lloyd - US women's national team (USWNT) - thumbs up

They probably should've scored more goals. Their phenom winger limped off with an ankle injury and her prognosis is uncertain. One could conceivably make some quibbles about the coach's lineup choices, and some faint but lingering worries remain about the composition of the tournament roster. Oh, and the goalkeeper got booed and trolled the entire game over a mosquito-borne illness...



The US women's national team were merely good, not great, in their Olympic curtain-raiser against New Zealand on Wednesday, a 2-0 win that probably didn't wow too many neutral fans. But any attempts to dig up significant quibbles about either the performance or the team that produced it only serve to underline the towering quality and expectations that the USWNT carry with them everywhere they go.


Though they openly aspire to play with an iconic level of style, Jill Ellis' side know that the New Zealand match is just the first step in a journey whose business end awaits at the mighty Maracana in Rio on Aug. 19.



Saturday's clash vs. France will be a major test on that road, however.


As our own Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle has written about evocatively in the past, US soccer is home to a long, proud tradition of hustle, heart and hectic play, the shorthand for which is “run fast, try hard.” As a result, a subconscious skepticism lingers towards any player or team who gives even the slightest impression of not going full-bore, pedal-to-the-medal at all times.


But the USWNT know better.


The US women know what it takes to survive and advance in tournaments. They are bolstered in this, of course, by cutting-edge sports science technology, the largest, deepest player pool in women's soccer and their status as full-time employees of the US Soccer Federation who are thus able to focus on their craft year-round (many of their counterparts abroad are not).

The USWNT's triumph at the 2015 Women's World Cup was keyed in large part by their ability to weather the grind of that tournament: rotating players, managing periodization and surging into top gear in the latter rounds. They are professionals, and they show it.


The Olympic soccer competition isn't as big or as long as the World Cup, and this year's event is taking place entirely on natural playing surfaces as opposed to the leg-pounding artificial turf used last summer in Canada. But it crams nearly as many games into a shorter period of time, limits teams to 18-player rosters (plus four alternates) instead of 23 and this time around features far-flung venues requiring substantial travel.

So the assured management of the New Zealand win sets up the Yanks well for Saturday's showdown with France, who hammered overmatched Colombia 4-0 in the nightcap at Estadio MineiraoLes Bleues are a legitimate medal contender in their own right, one of a select few teams that can stand toe to toe with the US in terms of talent, balance and experience.


They're skilled. They're unpredictable. And they're also one of only two who can claim a victory over the USWNT in the nearly 50 games the US have played since the beginning of last year.

France's 2-0 friendly win in Lorient on Feb. 18, 2015 was a wake-up call for the Yanks, and they're fully aware that it could happen again in Belo Horizonte this weekend. The Olympic tournament's generous format (eight of the 12 teams advance to the knockout rounds) means that it's not exactly do-or-die. But both the US and France want to win Group G, and neither will care to give an inch against an adversary they regard as rivals for a podium place. Both have the luxury of swapping fresh legs into their XIs for that one, and probably will.


We'll learn a lot more about the USWNT on Saturday. And the neutrals (whether they're still booing Hope Solo or not) will probably have a much prettier spectacle to watch as well.