It’s always more interesting when two narratives start to form around a team. Narrative the first: The USWNT are offensively inept and have been hugely disappointing in this World Cup so far. Narrative the second: We won the group of death, made it to the quarters, and haven’t let in a goal since the first game; what more do you want? You’ve heard fans voicing these two opinions throughout the first four games, and yesterday against Colombia only confirmed what both sides have been seeing.
It’s true the US Women have struggled to score. The first half proved this plenty when a tenacious Colombia squad disrupted the Americans’ rhythm and discovered a few scoring chances of their own. Their goalkeeper, Catalina Perez, was spectacular, denying a Wambach laser and generally staying disciplined in net.
After half, things changed in a hurry. A brilliant Megan Rapinoe pass put Alex Morgan through on goal, who was hacked down by Perez. The keeper was shown red, but Abby Wambach couldn’t convert at the PK spot, shockingly pushing her shot past the left post. With a man up, the USWNT started to create the more dangerous scoring chances. Morgan found space on the left side and saw the new keeper (Colombia’s third stringer now) cheating a bit toward the middle, expecting a cross. Instead, Morgan hammered a shot to the near post, which the keeper could only get a hand on. 1-0, Amurrica.
Later, Meghan Klingenberg (having a heck of a tournament) slotted a nifty through ball to Rapinoe. Again, Colombia desperately knocked down a US player in the box, setting up a Carli Lloyd penalty. This time, no mistake was made and the 2-0 scoreline remained until full time.
So, are the US Women in Deep Trouble? Or simply Finding Ways to Win?
There’s no doubt the Americans have failed to play up to their full potential so far. No one has really argued that point. The question seems to be if there is something faulty with this side — be it coaching, midfield and attacking chemistry, or something else entirely. Former USA star Michelle Akers has been vocal about manager Jill Ellis’ decisions.
“If she (Jill Ellis) is pleased with the way we played tonight then what the hell is she doing coaching our US team” – @MichelleAkers10
— SiriusXM FC (@SiriusXMFC) June 23, 2015
No matter how little faith you have in Ellis, their depth could cover up any future problems. Certainly the inability to find the back of the net with their glut of attacking power has been concerning. They needed Colombia to go down to 10 players before they were really able to turn it on. Now Rapinoe, their most lethal offensive weapon in this tournament, will be seated on the bench in the quarterfinals thanks to a second yellow card. In addition to scoring two goals vs. Australia, she has been involved in just about every legitimate chance on goal. Her absence could be glaring on Friday. And yet, the USWNT have the deepest team in the World Cup. I mean, Christen Press and Sydney Leroux haven’t even started the last two matches. This depth means Ellis can slot in Press for Rapinoe and Morgan Brian for Lauren Holliday (who also received her second yellow) and expect no considerable drop-off.
On defense, this team has been nothing short of lockdown. I’m not sure many expected this entering the tournament. The back four, plus Hope Solo, have been stalwart in every sense. Julie Johnston has probably been the standout player for the US Women so far, showing off a stunning combination of intelligence and physicality. Klingenberg and Ali Krieger have acquitted themselves wonderfully at the full back positions as well. One goal allowed in four games should strike fear into opponents. However, when you win with defense, people understandably tend to get a little worried.
Is winning ugly the sign of a champion or the sign of team in trouble? I’m not sold either way, but Stuart Holden makes an excellent point.
Most teams would be happy grinding out wins, but not the United States. We’re used to demolishing everybody 6-0 while blindfolded with an American flag. The fact is the rest of the world is catching up. The USWNT’s athleticism is no longer a guarantee of a massacre. Teams like Colombia, Nigeria, and Australia have closed the gap considerably in the last ten years. It’s not our divine right to dominate the World Cup; we haven’t even won it in 16 years.
Speaking of the last World Cup victory, the US Women play China on Friday, the country they defeated in the 1999 final. For a quarterfinal, it’s actually not a horrible matchup, the Americans will be heavily favored. The potential semifinal versus either Germany or France will be when things really jump up a level and the offensive kinks will need to get worked out.
No, six goals in four games isn’t exactly lighting the world on fire. No, the midfield doesn’t look quite right either. Still, the pessimistic reaction to each game is a bit much. Lifting the World Cup trophy is by no means a guarantee, especially as women’s football continues to advance around the world. The old cliche rings particularly true in a World Cup: a win is a win.
Now I can’t wait for another unimpressive one so we can do this all over again.