The United States advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup with a hard-fought 2-0 victory over Colombia on Monday night in Edmonton. It was a third win in four matches for the Americans, but once again the team will have major concerns about its midfield and attacking play.
In addition, progress came at a high cost. Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday both drew their second yellow cards of the tournament and will be suspended in the quarterfinals, where the U.S. will play China on Friday in Ottawa.
That's seriously bad news for the U.S. Rapinoe, a wide midfielder, has been the team's best, most creative attacking player throughout the tournament.
But as Kevin McCauley noted at SB Nation, it could be a positive development as well. Central midfield has been a mess for the Americans in all four games so far, and Holiday's absence will force coach Jill Ellis to consider other options:
Holiday and Rapinoe are great players, but missing them for the quarterfinal against China might be beneficial for the Americans, in two very different ways. In the case of Holiday, coach Jill Ellis might find out that Morgan Brian or Shannon Boxx is a better central midfield option going forward. And in the case of Rapinoe's absence, the U.S. will have to start attacking as a team instead of relying on one player to create everything.
Attacking as a team is something the U.S. simply has not done in this tournament. That was true again Monday night. By now, the pattern is so well worn that the major points could have been predicted before Monday's game.
Build-up play looked disjointed. The midfield failed to fully connect. The flow of play between lines lacked cohesion. Too often the U.S. relied on long balls lumped up top rather than passing patiently and probing for weaknesses.
On the positive side, however, the defense was impenetrable once again, and the Americans did just enough to secure a result and move on. For now, those last two points are still the most important. But as the knockout stage wears on and a potential showdown with Germany or France approaches, the team's attacking deficiencies loom ominously.
To put it bluntly, the U.S. will not beat France or Germany playing like it has so far. In fact, based on what we've seen so far, China's organized defense will have a good chance at shutting the Americans down and pulling off an upset.
The script outlined above could have described any of the team's first three matches, but in this case it provided the major plot points for the game against Colombia. In the first half, the U.S. started well but could not break through Colombia's resistance with an early goal. By halftime, the South Americans were the better side, and the Americans looked confused, frustrated and, frankly, a bit irritated.
Then, the game changed abruptly in the second minute of the second half. Running onto a long pass forward by Rapinoe, Alex Morgan beat backup Colombian goalkeeper Catalina Perez to the ball. Morgan tumbled under a challenge by Perez along the edge of the box, and the referee awarded a penalty and showed Perez a red card.
Abby Wambach blazed the ensuing penalty wide of the post, but from that point on, the result wasn't really in doubt. With a numerical advantage—and playing against a third-string goalkeeper—it was only a matter of time before the U.S. scored. Morgan took the honors in the 53rd minute, catching Stefany Castano cheating into the middle as Morgan appeared set to cross from a tight angle on the right. Instead, Morgan went for goal and beat Castano at her near post.
The sequence illustrated why Castano had entered the tournament as Colombia's third-choice goalkeeper. More importantly for the U.S., it took the pressure off. Rapinoe won a second penalty soon after, and Carli Lloyd converted this one confidently to complete the scoring.
With that, the Americans had done enough to survive and advance. In the World Cup knockout stage, that's actually all that matters. But we should remember that Colombia more than held its own against the U.S. in the first half—and that the red card significantly altered the course of the match.
In the lead-up to Monday's match, former U.S. coach Tony DiCicco insisted the team can still win the World Cup. The caveat, of course, was that Ellis will have to fix the team's flaws. DiCicco pointed to the team's superior defense and top-class goalkeeper Hope Solo as reasons to remain positive.
"With Hope and everybody being pretty focused in that back five, that makes the U.S. very dangerous," DiCicco said, per Philly.com. "If their attack becomes unglued, I don't think they can be stopped."
If a team never concedes, it can't be beaten—except, of course, on penalties. And DiCicco is right to praise the U.S. defense, which has not allowed a goal since the 27th minute of the opening match against Australia.
But through four matches, we haven't seen any indication that the U.S. attack will awaken.