The United States women’s soccer team heads into Friday’s World Cup quarterfinal against China with coach Jill Ellis happy to stress that her side is “capable of a lot more” than it has shown so far in the competition. Aiming to win its first World Cup since beating China in the final in 1999, the U.S. topped its group before beating Colombia 2-0 in the Round of 16. But as the team looks to continue its record of never failing to reach the semifinals of a major tournament, plenty of question marks over its performances remain.
On the positive side, the U.S. has not conceded a goal in 333 minutes, posting shutouts against Sweden, Nigeria and then Colombia. But it is with the ball that the team has struggled thus far. Scoring just three goals in its last three matches, the U.S. has struggled to find fluidity in possession, with Ellis frequently tinkering with her lineup. Ahead of the knockout match against a 16th-ranked China team, Ellis admits that they can do more.
“They understand that we’ve got to continue to raise our level with each round,” she said at a press conference on Thursday. “It’s not a matter of being satisfied. These are players that love challenges. We’re capable of a lot more. That’s the expectation on ourselves.”
The U.S. will encounter further problems in Ottawa on Friday, with both Lauren Holiday and Megan Rapinoe unavailable after picking up yellow cards against Colombia to earn a one-match suspension. Their absences have raised further questions about whether Ellis will opt to change from the 4-4-2 formation she has used throughout the competition and whether 35-year-old Abby Wambach will continue to be the focus of the attack.
“At this point it’s not about changing a shape,” Ellis responded. “A lineup is just an alignment of players. It’s how you play within any shape. It’s really about how mobile we are, about what we commit to in terms of how we want to play. It’s about selecting the right tools that we think will be beneficial in this match.”
Only Canada has been a more frequent opponent for the U.S. than China, and, including that famous 1999 final win, it has also largely been a positive matchup for the Americans. Indeed, the U.S. has not lost to China since 20003, although the last time they played, in Brazil last December, the match finished 1-1.
With limited expectations heading into this World Cup in Canada, China’s progress has been based on a well-organized defensive unit. Just three goals have been conceded in four games, with only four scored. In the Round of 16, it beat Cameroon 1-0 thanks to a goal from the player who has emerged as the team’s most potent attacking threat -- Wang Shanshan.
“It was a critical match for us and we were warriors,” Wang told FIFA’s website after the win over Cameroon. “And we are improving match by match. We adapt each match to our rivals with different styles of football. We all want to get to the final. That has to be everyone’s goal but we are not pressuring ourselves [about targets].”
Kickoff time: 7:30 p.m. EDT
TV channel: Fox, NBC Universo