SAITAMA, Japan — For the U.S. women’s national soccer team, the stakes for contests such as Saturday night’s at Saitama Stadium typically range between farcical and friendly. Its excellence makes the group stage, even at major tournaments, more playground than competition. Here, though, the Americans did not need a tuneup or a forum for testing out lineups. They had told one another for three strange days that they needed to be “ruthless.” They quite likely needed to beat New Zealand for their Olympic tournament survival.

Sweden had decimated the United States on Wednesday, and then minutes before the Americans took the pitch Saturday those ferocious Swedes just squeaked past Australia. When the match began, the Americans sat in last place. Forget the gold medal. Getting out of Group G suddenly hinged on beating the Kiwis.

The United States turned desperation into relief Saturday night, controlling almost every second of a 6-1 victory over New Zealand. Midfielder Rose Lavelle gave the U.S. team the lead with her first Olympic goal in the ninth minute, and Lindsey Horan’s header just before halftime extended the Americans’ advantage. By the time first lady Jill Biden arrived at her seat — second deck, front row, right at midfield — the U.S. team had ensured it would not suffer a second straight defeat.

The First Lady visited Tokyo on the first day of the Olympic Games. (The Washington Post)

“We know we don’t go from being a really great team two days ago to not being a great team anymore,” defender Crystal Dunn said. “I think we just came in a little more relaxed, trusting each other.”

If the U.S. team beats Australia on Tuesday, it can cruise into the quarterfinals and render the 3-0 Sweden shellacking nothing more than a bad memory. With two wild cards advancing out of the three groups, even a tie may be good enough, especially because a three-goal flurry in the final six minutes nudged Team USA’s goal differential to plus-2.

It was far from a perfect performance and not one befitting the four-time World Cup and Olympic champion. New Zealand entered ranked 22nd in the world, and the goal it scored in the 72nd minute made it 3-1 and underscored the handful of defensive breakdowns the U.S. team suffered. But a powerhouse that opened the tournament with a disaster Wednesday avoided one Saturday.

“We just had more energy from the get-go,” midfielder Julie Ertz said. “We came out wanting to score goals and make a statement. We had to a have fresh start.”

In the aftermath of Sweden snapping its 44-game unbeaten streak, the U.S. team did not run from its loss. At practice Thursday, Coach Vlatko Andonovski recapped what had gone wrong. “Be ourselves,” Ertz recalled as his message. “We kind of know what it takes.” Players spoke up. They regrouped through communication.

“It’s not what you want to do, but it’s part of sports,” Ertz said. “The beauty of a sport is you learn a lot every game. I actually think you learn more from when you lose.”

Andonovski focused on mentality. Several U.S. players used the word “ruthless” to describe how they needed to perform. They believed they had played with a mixture of tightness and tentativeness against Sweden.

“It’s a switch that should never be switched off,” forward Carli Lloyd said. “We need to have that switch turned on all the time. We need to be ruthless.”

The U.S. team’s final two games before the Olympics were both 4-0 victories over Mexico, a team not on the level of any heavyweight in Group G. It plastered New Zealand on Saturday night. Sandwiched around the Sweden debacle, the results suggest the U.S. squad’s approach may shift depending on opponent.

“It’s shouldn’t,” Horan said. “Every single game we step out, we know it’s going to be a battle and a challenge. You don’t know what it’s going to bring you. Formations change. I think every team that’s come out, we’ve gotten something different than we analyzed. That’s what we know is going to happen to us. Everyone brings their best game against the U.S., and we get that extra pressure.”

Facing a sudden stress test in his first major tournament, Andonovski made five changes to his starting 11, including moving longtime star forward Alex Morgan and captain Becky Sauerbrunn to the bench. Stalwarts Lloyd, Ertz and Megan Rapinoe returned to the lineup. Christen Press and Samantha Mewis, who have five goals each this year, also started on the bench.

The U.S. squad seized control from the start, pushing forward against New Zealand’s conservative approach. Tobin Heath capitalized on a failed New Zealand clearance, flicking a pass to Lavelle on the right wing. Lavelle rushed into the box and ripped a shot past goalie Anna Leat, inside the near post. It was an apt start for Lavelle, who was everywhere all night.

The U.S. squad had four — four! — goals waved off after offside calls in the first half, the last of them a header by Horan that may have stood, but the referee curiously chose not to use video review. “I think it just shows us there are little, small things we need to clean up,” Ertz said. “It’s our job to stay onside and make sure those count.”

After a few leaky defensive moments, the Americans finally struck again just before halftime. Rapinoe boomed a corner kick past the far post, where Ertz served a header to the front of the net, where Horan headed it into the goal.

Neither the U.S. squad’s loss to Sweden nor its chances to easily dispatch Australia looked better after the opener at Saitama. Sweden won, 4-2, but Australia seized a 2-1 lead after the great Sam Kerr scored her second goal early in the second half. The Aussies may have tied Sweden if not for Swedish goalie Hedvig Lindahl’s save on Kyra Cooney-Cross’s penalty kick.

Australia’s quality and willingness to attack against Sweden provided further evidence of how many threats the U.S. team faces, something it is willing to admit — and even eager to point out.

“Sometimes I feel like if ever we lose or tie or anyone gives us a game, it’s like unbelievable,” Rapinoe said after the Americans’ loss to Sweden. “And that’s really kind of offensive to every other team. This is the highest level, and these are the best teams in the world — Sweden being one of the best teams ever in the world. If we don’t play well game in, game out, we’re not going to win these games.”

On Saturday night, the U.S. team huddled on the field around Andonovski, discussing the kind of lopsided result it is accustomed to. The past three days, Dunn said, had been “a bit of a weird feeling.” As they walked toward their bench, the players looked into the second deck of the stadium and waved at Biden.

“Great she made the trip,” Lloyd said. “At least we had a couple people in the stands tonight.”

— Adam Kilgore

Find highlights from United States vs. New Zealand below.

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