If the United States women’s soccer team is to lift the World Cup for the first time since 1999, it will have to go through China, the country it famously defeated in the final at the Rose Bowl 16 years ago.
On Monday, goals from Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd gave the U.S. a 2-0 victory over Colombia in the Round of 16 to set up a quarterfinal meeting with China in Ottawa on Friday. The win takes the team one step further to achieving an objective that has frustratingly eluded it since 1999. After third-place finishes in 2003 and 2007, four years ago came the most agonizing near-miss yet when losing a penalty shootout in the final to Japan.
The motivation to win it this time around is particularly intense given that the tournament is being played across the border in Canada, with thousands of fans having traveled north from the U.S. to support their team. There is the added factor, too, of this being Abby Wambach’s final World Cup. The 35-year-old is the leading scorer in the history of women’s international soccer and has been a key part of the teams that came close to glory in the last three tournaments.
While many expected Wambach to be an impact substitute in her final World Cup, she has started three of her team’s four games so far. Yet, other than a goal against Nigeria in the group phase, she has lacked her usual impact in the opponent’s box, and against Colombia missed the target from the penalty spot. Meanwhile, her teammates have fallen into old habits of looking to rely on the striker’s phenomenal aerial prowess, often to the detriment of the fluidity of the team’s passing.
For her part, Wambach has already caused controversy for blaming her and her team’s lack of goals on the artificial turf surface being used at this World Cup. And she has continued her outspokenness following the win over Colombia, suggesting that teammates Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday were handed yellow cards because referee Stephanie Frappart knew it would result in their suspension from the next game.
“I don't know if they were yellows,” she said, according to Reuters. “It seemed like she was purposefully giving those to the players she knew were sitting on yellows. I don't know if it was just a psychological thing, who knows?”
The loss of both Holiday and Rapinoe will be a significant blow to the U.S. in the quarterfinals, especially the latter, who has been the team’s most potent creative threat throughout the tournament. Rapinoe’s absence is another sign pointing toward the quarterfinal being perhaps as tight as the scoreless tie in the 1999 final.
While goals have been hard to come by for the U.S., it has been hugely successful at keeping out the opposition. Indeed since conceding a goal to Australia during a rocky first 45 minutes of the World Cup, the U.S. has gone 333 minutes since conceding a goal. At the heart if that fine record has been the solid center-back duo Becky Sauerbrunn and emerging star Julie Johnston.
But China’s run through to the quarterfinals has also been based on defensive solidity. While lacking the attacking quality of previous teams, 16th-ranked China has none the less shown plenty of organization and resilience in conceding just three goals in its four games so far in Canada. In the Round of 16, the team coached by Hao Wei beat World Cup debutants Cameroon 1-0 thanks to an early goal from Wang Shanshan.
Its record against the U.S. does not make for encouraging reading, however. While the two rivals have not clashed in a World Cup since 1999, they have still met frequently, with the U.S. going unbeaten in 24 straight games against China, winning 20 of them, dating back to 2003.
Prediction: It is again unlikely to be a thrilling performance by Jill Ellis’ U.S. team, and, without the ingenuity of Rapinoe, it could be a real struggle to break down China. But the Americans’ greater individual quality should eventually just about be enough to see the team through to the semifinals.
Predicted score: USA over China, 1-0
Date and time: Friday, June 26 at 7:30 p.m. EDT.