SAITAMA, Japan — The first game just wasn’t good enough, the United States women’s soccer players declared.
The loss of a single match, even the opening game of the Olympic tournament, was one thing. The lack of energy. The absence of purpose. The surrender of the team’s championship mentality, baked into their very being through years of wins and work — those were things they could never accept.
“It’s a switch that should never be switched off,” the veteran forward Carli Lloyd said. Her teammate Kelley O’Hara had boiled down the response to a single word.
“We have to come out the next game,” she had told her teammates privately ahead of Saturday’s game against New Zealand, “and we have to be absolutely ruthless.”
Ruthless was a good description for the performance the United States turned in during a 6-1 thrashing that was the polar opposite of the Americans’ disastrous performance in a shutout loss against Sweden only three nights earlier.
Then, the United States had been dominated from start to finish. On Saturday, they were the ones delivering the beating, applying the pressure, directing the game.
“Being on our front foot, winning every battle, having a physical presence out there — that was the first thing for us,” midfielder Lindsey Horan said. “Everything else comes next.”
The chances and the goals — the first came in the ninth minute — began almost from the first minute and arrived nearly every way imaginable: a Rose Lavelle curler and a Horan header, a skillful Christen Press finish and a clinical one by Alex Morgan.
New Zealand added to its own misery, and bloated the scoreline, by turning two own goals into its net, but even those hardly mattered. When the shots and the pressure finally stopped, the result was, from a United States perspective, a welcome 180-degree turnaround, and a fairer representation of what a team filled with World Cup champions and Olympic gold medalists can do.
“It is what makes this team really special: the mentality,” Lloyd said. “We can spend hours upon hours doing tactical work, technical work, but if we don’t have the mentality that’s been built for so long, since the start of this team, we’re not going to win.
“I’ve been a part of eight world championships, won four. I can tell you that we’ve won four because of the mentality.”
That mentality had been questioned in recent days after a listless, toothless defeat against Sweden on Wednesday. Many of the players had taken the result almost as a personal affront: a galling night that wounded their pride but not their expectations, a terrible day that could only be erased by a better one.
“You know, we don’t go from being a really great team a few days ago to not being a great team anymore,” defender Crystal Dunn said.
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Setting out to prove just that, the Americans were relentless from the opening minutes. Coach Vlatko Andonovski made five changes to his starting lineup — bringing in veterans like Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe and Julie Ertz — and sent his team out on the hunt, to press the attack and to never let up.
How big was the win? It might have been far worse for New Zealand: The United States had four goals ruled out by offside calls in the first half.
Asked in his news conference if he would like to summarize the match, New Zealand Coach Tom Sermanni deadpanned, “Not really.”
His counterpart, Andonovski, was surely more pleased though barely more descriptive.
“We came here and did the job we needed to do tonight,” he said. “We wanted to be aggressive, wanted to play with urgency, wanted to be intense.
“I was very happy with the approach. We could see that right off the back, from the first whistle.”
Next up for the United States? A final group game against Australia in Kashima on Tuesday. Its defeat against Sweden could have lingering effects: Sweden won again on Saturday, beating the Australians, and now can claim the group with a win or a tie against a battered New Zealand.
The prize is a better seed in the knockout round — the Sweden-United States-Australia group winner will face a third-place finisher from another group, while the runner-up most likely will get the Netherlands or Brazil — and a chance to build some more momentum.
Based on Saturday’s effort, that is a feeling the United States has regained in abundance. Their gold-medal hopes had been dinged by their opening loss. By Saturday night, those expectations — not to mention the team’s swagger — might have returned.
“We needed to come out,” Horan said, “and show that we want this.”