The United States women’s soccer team’s quest to lift the World Cup will continue on Friday against the country it defeated in 1999 to claim its last world title, China. The Americans’ progress continued to be solid rather than spectacular when beating 10-woman Colombia courtesy of two second-half goals in the Round of 16.
But the victory came at a cost with both Lauren Holiday and Megan Rapinoe picking up yellow cards that mean they will miss the quarterfinal in Ottawa against a China team that edged out Cameroon 1-0 in the last 16. Here are three keys to the match, followed by the predicted starting lineups.
How to replace suspended duo
There is little doubt that the absence of Holiday and Rapinoe poses a significant headache for coach Jill Ellis, and not just because the duo are responsible for taking the team’s set-pieces. Rapinoe’s loss in particular will severely dent the United States’ chances of breaking down a China defense that has been well drilled and conceded just three goals in its four World Cup games. Amid a U.S. attack has been spluttering at best so far, Rapinoe has been the one consistent hope of some off-the-cuff ingenuity. In the group stage she scored two goals to get the U.S. out of a sticky situation against Australia, and delivered the corner for Abby Wambach to net the only goal against Nigeria. In the win over Colombia she was key, too, sending the ball through for Alex Morgan to earn a penalty and a game-changing red card for Colombia’s goalkeeper, before being brought down herself in the box for Carli Lloyd to make the result safe from the spot. In her place is likely to come Christen Press, who has disappointed in her showings so far in the competition.
The loss of Holiday excuses Ellis from her continued struggles to balance the midfield, but it still offers no obvious solutions. Having opted against selecting a dedicated holding midfielder other than 37-year-old Shannon Boxx, who plainly cannot go for 90 minutes, Ellis will again have to force a compromise, likely selecting the versatile Morgan Brian alongside Lloyd.
Finding the attacking fluidity
Regardless of the changes in personnel, the task of displaying a coherent game plan and some fluidity in possession remains. With Ellis seemingly beholden to playing a 4-4-2 featuring Wambach in attack, the team has fallen into a trap of one-dimensional predictability as they aim to play to the physical, aerial strengths of the 35-year-old striker. Flowing passing moves on the ground have been few and far between, and the contrast between the play of the U.S. and some of the delightful interchanges displayed by Japan against the Netherlands on Tuesday is a painfully sharp one. A shift to a 4-3-3 to get some pace down the flanks could potentially help matters, but that appears unlikely at this stage. Still, lessening the dependence on Wambach will surely be key if the U.S. is to continue to advance.
U.S. defensive solidity
While the U.S. has been underwhelming in making it through to the quarterfinals, one area of the team has won deserved plaudits. After a tricky opening half of the competition against Australia, the U.S. defense has been rock solid, and enters the clash with China having not conceded a goal in 333 minutes. Alongside the experienced Becky Sauerbrunn, Julie Johnston’s emergence into an elite center-back has been one of the revelations of the World Cup thus far. Meghan Klingenberg has also been excellent at left-back and Ali Krieger solid on the opposite flank. And if the quartet does get breached, Hope Solo has already shown in this competition that she remains a formidable last line of defense. There is every reason to believe their shutout streak will continue against a China team lacking the invention of the side that lost on penalties in the 1999 final, and which has scored just four times in as many matches in Canada.
D: Krieger, Sauerbrunn, Johnston, Klingenberg
M: Press, Brian, Lloyd, heath
F: Wambach, Morgan
G: Wang F.
D: Wu, Zhao R., Li D., Liu
M: Tan, Ren
Wang L., Tang, Han
F: Wang Sha