DRESDEN, Germany - 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.
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 Americans now face Colombia, which lost 1-0 to Sweden, on Saturday in Sinsheim.
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."
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