Three More Things: Assessing USWNT's Chances Post-Colombia
Four games down, three to go. Three wins separate the United States Women's National Team from a third star, and its first World Cup in a generation.
After a bit of a depressing 2-0 win against a Colombia team that also gave France a real run for its money, I'll review three lessons I've learned about this team so far, with an eye towards the road ahead:
1. The defense is elite, and that's no accident
Julie Johnston and Meghan Klingenberg (two of my four "breakout stars to watch" from my preview) have been revelations. Ali Krieger, although limited offensively, has been lock-down as a defensive fullback. Becky Sauerbrunn is so disciplined and savvy that I wish Jürgen Klinsmann had called her into to his Gold Cup team. Oh yeah, and they have the greatest keeper in the history of women's soccer in Hope Solo. It's no accident that the American's best unit has put in the most impressive performance of the cup, without conceding a goal in an almost-incomprehensible 333 consecutive minutes.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that Johnston and Klingenberg are the USA's two best players so far in the cup (Landon Donovan apparently agrees with me). The lack of a true holding midfielder, or any midfielder with defensive instincts, means that the US frequently leaves itself exposed on the counter and giving opposing attacking midfielders acres of space in which to operate just off the back line. What that requires is a maurauding center-back who is athletic and insanely aggressive so that she'll be able to step up off her line and break up opposing attacks.
Johnston has done this time and again, busting up opposing possession with gusto. She is also a major contributor as an aerial threat from set pieces, and more than adequate in traditional defending technique, twice dispossessing Nigerian star Asisat Oshoala with elegant form tackles despite having been beaten by a step.
Klingenberg is not only a ferocious and cagey defender, most famously heading a Swedish attempt off her own line despite her diminutive stature, she may also be the US's most important creative force going forward. She's provided width and guile that the US front 6 seems to be lacking, putting Megan Rapinoe through with a positively irresistable chip that forced a penalty against Colombia.
This group is where our best qualities lie, and will hold the key to reigning in either Germany or France should we be so lucky as to face them in the semifinal.
2. It's still painful to watch this team at times
Against Colombia, who were constantly probing, dribbling, and trying the spectacular, the contrast was particularly galling, or even humiliating. Las Cafeteras were playing joyful, flair-based football with swagger and confidence. They even managed to keep up at least one half of pressing and defending in packs to win back possession, a new wrinkle we haven't seen from US opponents yet and something we definitely haven't seen from our own ladies.
For our part, it was turgid long balls, diagonal balls to no where, and crosses to no one in particular. We gave away possession like we were trying to. It was also evident that our players were incredibly frustrated with their own play (as well as the officiating, which on more than one occasion was horrifying). The midfield movement was less static than against, say, Sweden, but that fluidity wasn't always beneficial either. Tobin Heath, for example, was constantly cutting in to get on the ball and the effect was simply to clog up the middle and concede any width our attack may have.
Wambach, who I love dearly as one of the greatest American players of all time and this team's heart and soul, just doesn't look like she's capable of putting 90 high-quality minutes together at 35 years old. She hoofed a penalty against a 3rd string keeper who hadn't the advantage of a warmup. She can't really move much, not that quickness was ever really part of her game. And she causes the team to play a direct, aerial style that doesn't suit anyone else in the starting XI. Abby herself, ever the leader, said going into the tournament she was desperate to pass on the torch to the next generation.
Whether it's the force of her personality, Jill Ellis's weakness at personality management, or my limitations as an observer of the game, I just can't imagine a world in which she's the most ideal forward to start in a flat 4-4-2 with the rest of the personnel we have.
I hope, once again, that she is asked to provide a super-sub role and we instead pair Morgan and Press up top, two players who not only are more proactive and willing to try something special than anyone else on the team, but also two who have real chemistry between them.
3. It's possible these struggles are just an intentional rope-a-dope strategy
In three of the US's four games, the script has been the same: an uninspiring first half gave way to a dominant if ugly second half once their opponent's fitness and enthusiasm faded. It was essentially a boa-constrictor theory of soccer: stay tight at the back, take your lumps, let your opponent thrash around for 45 to 60 minutes, and overwhelm them by staying strong down the stretch and exploiting mistakes. Australia, Nigeria, and Colombia all fell in the same fashion.
This strategy requires two things: a bulletproof back line and superior fitness. Of course, those are two traits the Americans have in spades. For all the hand-wringing about Jill Ellis's tactics and management, it may belie a sneakily gifted tactician who recognized technical limitations the rest of us weren't willing to admit and dialed up a system that took perfect advantage of the skills we undoubtably do have.
Although our technical limitations are debateable, I think in time we may come to realize that our midfield was weaker than we imagined and that for all the starpower up top, none of them were natural complementary pieces nor particularly adept at an on-the-ground passing system (Christen Press and Alex Morgan perhaps excepted). It is on that question, then, that Jill Ellis's short tenure as USWNT coach will be evaluated.
The drawback of this strategy is that while it may prove a great leveller against superior French and German sides, it also presents a risk in a single-elimination game against a lesser opponent such as China that we may not be able to exert the kind of dominance that you'd hope from an elite team. Essentially, while rope-a-dope might kill off minnows who run out of steam, or limit high-flying sides, it leaves us vulnerable to having to chase a game after giving up a flukey goal to a team that isn't at our level but is fit and disciplined enough to hold a lead. China fits that bill.
This US team isn't vintage, and it likely represents a transitional phase between Wambach's generation and Alex Morgan's. Not only that, but the rest of the world is catching up fast to the traditional powers. Where that leaves us is a very good team that according to 538 has a 32% chance of winning it all at this point, 2 points behind Germany, and miles ahead of the rest (who are all in single digits).
China is a classic trap game, and there is a very real chance of disappointment there. Don't forget, stalwarts Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday are suspended for card accumulation, likely giving way to Christen Press and Morgan Brian. This is not a gimme. In fact, I think 538's assessment of an 88% chance of advancing is too high.
From there we get one of France or Germany, both excellent sides who can beat anyone on their day. That will be the toughest game we have remaining, and will be a strong indicator if this team is for real. We'll undoubtably go into the match as underdogs, a novel mindset for this team. Japan basically has a wide open path on the other side of the bracket, now that Brazil was eliminated, and is the most likely opponent in the final if all teams hold to form.
If that matchup turns out, the US will be highly motivated to seek revenge for the traumatic 2011 loss, but this time facing an even better-regarded side.
If I were a betting man, I wouldn't bet on taking home the title. As I said before the tournament, a loss in the semifinal or final seemed most likely to me, and it still does.
That being said, I'm an American, and eternal optimism courses through my veins, so I'll be the first one there on game day to watch the final.