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Kiwi Bravehearts' Dream Denied By World's Best
by Jeremy Ruane
Reigning Olympic Women's Football Tournament champions Team USA kept alive their prospects of scoring three successive gold medal-winning performances in the event at Newcastle's St. James' Park on August 3, as they downed a plucky Football Ferns combination 2-0 to end the medal hopes of the Kiwi bravehearts.

The odds were stacked against the New Zealanders going into this encounter with the women's footballing world's form nation, and straight from the off the USA were keen to press home that fact, Alex Morgan stinging the gloves of Jenny Bindon from twenty yards after working a one-two with Tobin Heath.

But one thing the Football Ferns have proved to the world throughout the course of their Olympics campaign is their resilience, and within two minutes they were giving their much vaunted opponents more than a little cause for concern at the other end of the park.

USA captain Christie Rampone fouled Amber Hearn just outside the penalty area as both leapt to head the ball, and Kirsty Yallop's eyes instantly lit up - could she score in successive Olympic Women's Football Tournaments for the Football Ferns? Alas no, her deflected attempt from the free-kick allowing Hope Solo to save comfortably.

The warning initially went unheeded by the USA, and after Carli Lloyd had lashed a twenty-yarder wide of the mark in the sixth minute, Katie Hoyle - she gave everything and then some for the cause - unleashed a thirty yarder which fizzed past Solo's right-hand post, after Hearn had released Sarah Gregorius at pace down the left.

But gradually, the immensely experienced USA combination got on top of their opponents, initially aided in the tenth minute by an Abby Erceg blunder. Despite what the Sky TV commentary team would have you believe, she has not been at her best in these Olympics - her displays in the China series on home turf were markedly better than those Erceg produced at London 2012, make no mistake.

On this occasion, the defender failed to adequately deal with Kelley O'Hara's ball forward, and when someone with the pace and poise of Morgan is lurking nearby, any blunder equals instant trouble.

Sure enough, the golden girl of the American squad stormed onto the ball and raced into the penalty area, easily rounding the approaching figure of Bindon to leave herself with an unguarded net to fire into from a tight angle.

Remarkably, Morgan steered her shot across the face of goal and past the far post - a real let-off for the Football Ferns, with some clearly relieved faces evident among those clad in black for this encounter.

The Americans, who enjoyed the support of the majority of the 10,441 fans present in this North-East England footballing mecca, really began to warm to their task after this close call, with Megan Rapinoe in particular catching the eye down the right.

In the seventeenth minute, she benefited from some strong work by Lauren Cheney in midfield to race down the right and send a low cross zooming into the six-yard box. Morgan, sliding in, just failed to get on the end of it, while Abby Wambach, who was making the run to the far post, somehow steered her effort wide of the mark - another let-off for the Kiwis.

Seconds later, Bindon raced out of her area to clear the danger as Rapinoe played an early ball forward for Morgan to pursue. But another Erceg error in the 21st minute allowed Heath to get in a cross for Morgan, only for the combined talents of Rebecca Smith and Ria Percival to avert the danger.

Wambach headed Rapinoe's resulting corner over the bar, then, after Hoyle had sent a dipping twenty-five yarder a yard over the bar at the other end of the park, raced through following a midfield mix-up by the Football Ferns in the 23rd minute.

Bindon dashed off her line to save at Wambach's feet, but the striker clipped the head of New Zealand's number one as she hurdled her, leaving Bindon requiring treatment before play could resume.

Four minutes later, the Americans were doing cartwheels, having taken the lead. Rachel Buehler's ball forward sent Morgan marauding down the left. She took on Smith, who jockeyed her this way and that, but the talented striker still managed to engineer some space in which to angle a ball through the defence.

Both Erceg and Bindon let it go, thinking that it was going to roll harmlessly past the far post for a goal-kick. But Wambach, lurking on the blind side of the defender, had other ideas, and stole in to gleefully steer home, from three yards, her 142nd international goal - only the peerless Mia Hamm has netted more goals on the world stage.

It was Wambach's fourth goal in as many matches at these Olympics, and one which left the Football Ferns crestfallen. The pressure the Americans were putting them under when the Kiwis were in possession wasn't improving New Zealand's mood either, as the resulting forced errors and inaccurate passes meant they were soon having to stave off further USA attacking thrusts.

Such as that in the 29th minute, with Heath pouncing on a stray pass and instantly picking out Wambach who held play up until a team-mate came storming up in support on the left flank.

Not just any team-mate, mind, but captain and defensive lynchpin Rampone, for whom anything beyond the half-way line is usually regarded as nose-bleed territory. But here she was, at 37 the oldest left-winger in the tournament, and making light of her years as she whipped in a cross to the far post, where Morgan was arriving.

So was Ali Riley, who cut out the threat well on this occasion - it certainly made a change from having to contain the threat of Rapinoe, who was proving to be quite a handful for the charismatic fullback, to such an extent that Riley's attacking contributions throughout the first half were nullified.

Percival was faring slightly better in that regard, even forcing Solo to pluck a cross-shot from beneath her crossbar in the 33rd minute. The confident American goalkeeper had to repeat that exercise in the shadows of the half-time whistle to deny Betsy Hassett's deflected shot, after Riley and Hearn had combined to find their team-mate, for whom this was her last day as a 21-year-old.

The reigning Olympic champions, having held their one-goal advantage through to the half-time break, came out steaming straight from the kick-off, to such an extent that within twelve seconds of play resuming, Smith was blocking a Morgan drive.

The speedy striker was in on goal again in the 48th minute, Erceg gifting the ball to Morgan after cutting out Cheney's ball forward. "Babyhorse", as Morgan is nicknamed, should have done better than to rattle the side-netting.

Morgan was causing all sorts of problems, and barely sixty seconds later, had strong claims for a penalty turned away by Argentinian referee Jesica
Di Iorio - and it was far from her finest ninety minutes, of that you can rest assured!

Erceg came off worse after clashing with the striker initially - there were grounds for a defensive free-kick on this challenge - but play continued, only for Smith to send Morgan to the turf inside the area seconds later. Again, Di Iorio opted out of making a decision, much to the Football Ferns' relief this time, as penalties have been awarded for a lot less.

After that initial burst of attacking energy, the USA were well contained by the Football Ferns for a few minutes. But just shy of the hour mark, a Rapinoe free-kick culminated in Morgan heading the ball straight to Bindon.

In the 62nd minute, there was further evidence of inconsistent officiating, this time from Uruguayan referee's assistant Mariana Corbo, who failed to flag a clear offside call as Morgan raced through onto a through ball from Heath.

Bindon hurtled out of her goal as Smith dashed back to cover the threat posed by Morgan, with the ball spilling loose between the three of them. The Football Ferns' captain was the first to react, half-a-second before Bindon looked to dive on the ball.

Cue the sight of Smith's clearance ricocheting off Bindon straight to the prone figure of Morgan, whose attempt to direct the ball goalwards, even if it had gone in, wouldn't have counted - she'd been flagged offside. Talk about a comedy of errors

The Football Ferns weren't laughing, however, and one look at the scoreboard told you why. But after Wambach had gone close upon receipt of a couple of Rapinoe crosses - the first she headed wide from twelve yards, while the second was grabbed greedily by Bindon - the underdogs enjoyed their best attacking spell of the match, and took the game to their much vaunted rivals as they pursued an equaliser.

Riley was the key. With Rapinoe having all but run herself out, the Football Ferns fullback suddenly found herself with a licence to roam forward, something Riley is renowned for. Sure enough, she created an opening for Hannah Wilkinson in the 69th minute, but Hearn wasn't anticipating the striker's cross - a chance missed.

Another followed sixty seconds later, with Riley herself supplying this delivery. This time the ball arced beyond Wilkinson, and was too far in front of Hayley Moorwood for the substitute to exploit on the occasion of her 100th appearance in a Football Ferns shirt - the first female to reach the milestone, and only the third player in New Zealand's history, Steve Sumner (105 games) and Brian Turner (102) being the others.

Cue a USA counter-attack, in the 73rd minute. Lloyd sent Morgan surging through the offside trap. Bindon raced out of her area, but the striker touched the ball past her, only for the two to collide, Morgan's knee catching Bindon flush in the forehead to leave the 'keeper seemingly out for the count.

Morgan, too, needed treatment, but it was Bindon's well-being which was of far greater concern to all present, players and fans alike. The Illinois native is a tough customer, however, and recovered sufficiently to see out the game, although whether she'll remember much about it is another matter entirely!

Of course, there was another issue surrounding the incident which got put to one side while both players received treatment - had Bindon committed a professional foul, as it could be argued that, even though they had collided, Morgan had been taken out of play by the 'keeper after touching the ball past her.

Referee Di Iorio, to the frustration of some Team USA players, turned down their pleas and kept her cards in her pocket, resuming play with a drop-ball. Within sixty seconds, Percival was letting rip with a thirty yarder, but it takes something special to beat Solo from that range. Unfortunately for the Football Ferns, this wasn't it.

What they contrived in the 83rd minute, however, was something special - a delightful move sparked by Moorwood and fellow substitute Rosie White. The pair combined with Percival before the Football Ferns' centurion deftly back-heeled the ball into the striker's stride as she surged into the penalty area.

She got little further, the combined challenges from behind of both O'Hara and Lloyd sending White to the turf, the ball rolling away in front of her. If ever there was a stonewall penalty, this, surely, was it. It was even more clear-cut than the claim for which Morgan had been denied earlier in the half, and that's saying something.

But the Argentine official once again defied logic, common sense and what was clearly obvious to the naked eye, much to the chagrin of the Football Ferns - in short, a quite unbelievable decision, one which, had it been given, would have presented the first-time quarter-finalists with the chance to draw level with five minutes remaining.

Instead, with three minutes left on the clock, Team USA finally broke the stubborn resistance of their plucky rivals and booked their place in the semi-finals of the 2012 Olympic Women's Football Tournament.

Heath sent Morgan's replacement, Sydney Leroux, galloping away down the left, and her fresh legs and all-round pace proved too much for Smith to contain, the newcomer dashing into the penalty area before steering a shot through the legs of the advancing figure of Bindon and into the far corner of the net - 2-0.

The USA sought further goals in stoppage time, as their spirited opponents realised their Olympics dream was diminishing by the second. Lloyd was the architect of both openings, and while Heather O'Reilly lobbed the later effort over the bar, the earlier one presented Wambach with the chance to score again.

The striker got the better of Smith, but not Percival, whose superb covering challenge typified the Football Ferns' steadfast commitment and willingness to work till the very last whistle throughout the entire tournament, something which a couple of their opponents acknowledged post-match.

"New Zealand was a strong opponent. They pressured hard and they had a lot of heart and athleticism out there", said Buehler to US Soccer, while Wambach, talking to FIFA after the game, was more effusive in her praise of the beaten quarter-finalists.

"They are very physical. They're one of the most improved teams in this tournament in the last few years. You have to give them credit. The work-rate they have is amazing, but they couldn't save it in the second half as they got a bit tired. They have a fantastic future and they're a great team".

Team USA:     Solo; Le Peilbet, Rampone, Buehler, O'Hara; Rapinoe (O'Reilly, 71), Lloyd (booked, 79), Cheney (Rodriguez, 90), Heath; Morgan (Leroux, 80), Wambach (booked, 43)
F'ball Ferns:     Bindon; Percival, Smith, Erceg, Riley; Hassett, Hoyle (Longo, 90), Hearn, Yallop (Moorwood, 56); Gregorius, Wilkinson (White, 77)
Referee:     Jesica Di Iorio (Argentina)

London 2012