DRESDEN, Germany (AP) — Once, twice, three times and then a fourth, Lauren Cheney launched a shot with her foot only to watch it go right into the hands of the North Korean goalkeeper.
Finally, she used her head. And just like that, the Americans looked more like a team that could contend for a third Women’s World Cup title than the one that took a self-described “bumpy” road to Germany.
“I wasn’t frustrated,” said Cheney, whose goal in the 54th minute sparked a 2-0 win over North Korea on Tuesday. “I knew if I kept going, I’d get one. I’m pretty happy I did.”
So did her teammates. After hearing about their inconsistency and shortcomings for months, the win in their tournament opener gave the Americans a needed dose of confidence. When the final whistle sounded, the U.S. reserves ran onto the field to celebrate while the North Koreans stood just beyond midfield, watching.
It was the fourth straight time the teams had met in group play at the World Cup, and the Americans have won all the games but one. The Americans now face Colombia, which lost 1-0 to Sweden, on Saturday in Sinsheim.
North Korean coach Kim Kwang Min blamed his team’s failings in the second half on a June 8 lightning strike during training in Pyongyang that sent “more than five” players to the hospital. Goalkeeper Hong Myong Hui, four defenders and some of the midfielders were the players most affected, Kim said.
“The physicians actually said the players were not capable of playing in the tournament,” Kim said through an interpreter. “They’re not physically ready for this match, but they had a strong will.”
The North Koreans didn’t seem as if anything was amiss, nearly matching the Americans in possession (53 percent to 47 percent) and getting seven shots on goal. And the lightning strike seemed to catch everyone off-guard, with the FIFA media officer at the venue saying she had no knowledge of it until Kim’s postgame news conference.
The young North Koreans — only two had played in a World Cup before — looked pretty good in the first half. The Americans started the game strong, controlling play with crisp passing and good speed. But the North Koreans gained confidence as time went on, shutting down the U.S. attack in the midfield and repeatedly pushing forward in the closing minutes before halftime.
Kim Su Gyong took a shot from close range in the 34th minute, but U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo punched it away. Four minutes later, Song Jung Sun slid a shot right in front of the goal that Solo couldn’t reach. No other Americans were there to clear it away — neither were the North Koreans — and Ali Krieger finally booted the ball to safety.
“The opening to any game, emotions are going to be flying, players are going to be flying, it’s going to be ugly sometimes,” Solo said. “It was a little sloppy at the beginning, but we weathered the storm.”
U.S. coach Pia Sundhage told her players at halftime to take the ball outside and make more use of the flanks. The improvement was clear immediately.
Cheney, making her first start since March, had two shots caught by Hong in the first five minutes of the half. In the 51st minute, Abby Wambach took a sliding shot from the edge of the 6-yard box, only to watch the ball sail over the net.
Finally, in the 54th, Wambach dribbled quickly up the left flank and took a step as if to move inside, spinning a North Korean defender around. Wambach dribbled a few more steps before chipping in a perfect cross that Cheney nodded past Hong.
“I’m actually not a very good header,” Cheney said. “I just knew I wanted to redirect it back to the same place it came from.”
It was Cheney’s 14th goal in her 40th appearance for the United States.
“When Lauren scored that goal, it’s obviously kind of like the monkey off your back,” Wambach said.
The Americans practically camped themselves on North Korea’s side of the field, with Wambach hitting the crossbar in the 65th and Amy Rodriguez putting a shot wide in the 73rd before Rachel Buehler scored the insurance goal in the 76th minute. A shot off the crossbar ricocheted back into the scrum and Carli Lloyd collected the ball and headed it to Buehler, who unleashed a monster strike with her right foot. Hong dove and stretched out her hand, but she never got close and the ball rolled into the net.
It was the second goal of the defender’s career.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to build confidence off this win,” Buehler said.
The Americans have heard plenty of criticism about their uncharacteristic inconsistency these last few months. After going more than two years without a loss, the U.S. dropped three games in five months. The Americans were stunned in the semifinals of regional World Cup qualifying by Mexico, a team that had been 0-24-1 against its northern neighbor. The U.S. had to win a home-and-home playoff with Italy just to get to Germany.
The United States lost to Sweden in the Four Nations opener, though it did go on to win the tournament, and was beaten by England for the first time since 1988.
But the Americans insisted they would be fine once the tournament started, and their victory over North Korea only reinforced that.
“It doesn’t matter what happened in the past,” Wambach said. “It’s all about what’s happening in this tournament, and that’s what we’re focused on.”