EDMONTON, Alberta – The exposition has been extensive.
For the past six months, United States players said that they were looking to peak in June.
There was the 3-2 loss to Brazil in December, the 2-0 loss to France in February when Les Bleues ran the U.S. off the park in Lorient and even the scoreless draw with Iceland at the Algarve Cup in March.
All the while, as alarm bells went off from fans and media – Where is the midfield? Why is the shape so narrow? Is the U.S. creative enough to break down a bunker? – U.S. players kept their cool. The best is yet to come, they said.
But June’s arrival hasn’t yet brought the United States’ best soccer, despite an unbeaten mark at this Women’s World Cup.
[KASSOUF: Morgan relieved to get back on scoresheet]
On Monday, the U.S. advanced to the quarterfinals for the seventh time in seven World Cups with a 2-0 win over Colombia, a team that played with the heart and ferocity with which they promised in the days leading into the match. It was an ugly first half from the Americans – “impatient” is the word goal-scorer Alex Morgan used to describe the play – but they were able to overcome another slow start to ultimately prevail.
But is the soccer – the style, the combination play, the finishing – satisfying?
“This is the World Cup. I’m really satisfied with advancing,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis bristled when asked. “Most goals in World Cup tournaments, the majority of them come on set pieces. We’ve been brilliant. So it’s about finding a way. I thought we stroked the ball around pretty well at times. I’m pleased with where we are.”
There’s a consensus among players that their play is getting better, but that it hasn’t yet reached its peak. But with the U.S. now into the quarterfinals, there’s only so much time left to find that groove. The World Cup final, should the U.S. get there, is less than two weeks away. First up is a tricky test against a very organized China team on Friday, with the winner getting either Germany or France – the world’s two best teams on form right now – in the semifinals.
After a group stage that didn’t see any of the world’s best teams put forth overly convincing performances, world No. 1 Germany came out and smacked Sweden on Saturday, 4-1. France made quick work of a highly organized Korea Republic team in a 3-0 win on Sunday, the same Korea Republic team that held the U.S. scoreless earlier in the month in the Americans’ sendoff team.
With their potential semifinal opponents finally firing on all cylinders, the U.S. is still waiting to do exactly that.
“We all want to play better,” U.S. forward Abby Wambach said. “We want to play better football. We want to create more consistent chances. But we also know that the better teams we play, the fewer the chances you are going to create. Those chances that you create, you have to bury.”
Wambach’s missed penalty kick three minutes after hafltime only exacerbated the tension in the air of the decidedly pro-Colombian crowd at Commonwealth Stadium on Monday, but Morgan took advantage of third-string goalkeeper Stefany Castano and Megan Rapinoe, as she has done all tournament, made something out of nothing to draw the United States’ second penalty kick, which Carli Lloyd buried for the two-goal advantage.
Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday will miss the quarterfinal match due to suspension, an added caveat of concern. Each player received a second respective yellow card of the tournament on Monday. Rapinoe has been the United States’ best offensive player at the World Cup, scoring twice in the opening win against Australia and causing trouble for opponents throughout the tournament.
“She’s a tremendous player, but I think we’ve got players with tremendous technical skills,” Ellis said of replacing Rapinoe. “We’ve got good pace in certain positions and I know that we will step up.
“I have the utmost confidence in the players that we have,” she added. Ellis later said that 22-year-old Morgan Brian will likely start in place of Holiday. Rapinoe indicated that Christen Press could be her replacement against China.
Teams playing with numbers advantages in the middle of the park – Australia, Colombia and, next up, China – have had a distinct advantage against the U.S. at this World Cup.
It is unanimously stated by U.S. players that they aren’t at their best right now. But when will they be? Friday is a quick turnaround to face China, and it’s presumptuous to think that this U.S. team will roll through the Steel Roses, even if China looked less than impressive against Cameroon on Saturday.
“I don’t feel like time’s running out at all,” Holiday said when asked about the team’s urgency to play better. “I feel like it’s completely in our control. I believe in all the girls in my team so much that I know that they’ll show up in big games and I’ll know that we’ll put our best soccer together in those games.”
In the end, as Ellis said, a win’s a win. But the Americans haven’t yet put together a fully convincing 90 minutes at this World Cup, often coming alive in the second halves of games. And against Germany and France – especially the Germany and France which finally showed up in the Round of 16 – flat starts just aren’t going to cut it.