If you’ve been enjoying this Women’s World Cup—and how could you not be based on all the games we’ve seen?—it’s impossible not to be excited about the four quarterfinals that will unfold on Friday and Saturday.
USA-China, Germany-France, Japan-Australia and Canada-England are all compelling matchups for several reasons, whether it’s due to past rivalries (USA-China), newly emerging powers (like Australia trying to dethrone the champs) or seeing heavyweight fights that could have been saved for the final (Germany-France).
This much can be said about the U.S. team: it’s a strange situation when the first two knockout-round opponents—Colombia and China—aren’t as good as any of the teams the U.S. played in the group stage (Australia, Sweden, Nigeria). That’s not to say that the U.S. is going to roll over China, especially with creative sparks Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday both missing the game on yellow-card suspensions.
But it is to say that if the U.S. advances to a semifinal against France or Germany, how we remember this World Cup in U.S. terms will likely have very little to do with the Colombia and China games.
For reasons we’ve talked about before, FIFA gave the U.S. and Canada sweetheart paths in the knockout bracket to the semifinals as long they won their groups (which they did).
I’ve had people tell me they think this U.S. women’s team is like last year’s Brazilian men’s World Cup team and is headed for a fate in the semifinals that’s similar to the mind-blowing 7-1 shellacking Brazil suffered against Germany. Anything is possible, but it's hard to see the U.S. back line, which has allowed just one goal in four games, turning into the sieve that Brazil became that night.
What is becoming apparent is that with the U.S. midfield sputtering, the most likely scenario for the U.S. winning the World Cup involves more defensive shutouts and U.S. goals that come from set pieces. It isn’t exactly the Beautiful Game, but the Beautiful Game isn’t walking through that door for the U.S., not anytime soon.
“You guys may harp on us not scoring as many goals,” Abby Wambach said, “but this is the World Cup, and moving on is the most important [thing], and the secondary thing that comes from that is goals. I know we need to score goals to move on, but we only need to score one more than our opposition. That’s the most important thing.”
As left back Meghan Klingenberg said, “If we keep a zero on the scoresheet, we’re going to be in every single game that we play. So that’s absolutely the most important thing for our back line and for Hope [Solo].”
We’ve been hearing for months that the U.S. has its deepest team ever, and that assertion will be challenged to the fullest against China with Rapinoe and Holiday out. Coach Jill Ellis has already said that Morgan Brian—the youngest player on the team at age 22—is the likely replacement for Holiday playing in the central midfield next to Carli Lloyd.
“Carli and I play at the Houston Dash together,” said Brian, “so I’ve gotten to know her there and it’s been good to play with her there and get to know her. For us, it’s just focusing on what we can do best, whoever is in the middle. Obviously, [Holiday] and I play differently than Carli and I do, so we just have to figure it out.”
Wambach said: “They’ve given Morgan a lot of playing time over the last 12 months. Morgan has confidence right now, not only as a young player, but having been given the quality time that she’s had, and she’s gotten into some games here at this World Cup.”
There really isn’t a like-for-like replacement for Rapinoe, who has been the U.S.’s primary creative spark for the entire tournament. But the most likely fill-in will be Christen Press. Press isn’t a natural wide player—she’s best as a center-forward—but she has played wide often in the past year and is adept at cutting in to create attacking threats (like her brilliant individual goal against France in the Algarve Cup final).
China is a young team and hardly a tomato can—the Steel Roses tied the U.S. 1-1 in Brazil last December—but they’re also the No. 8 team in the quarterfinals if you’re doing power rankings. You get the sense that this team will be a bigger threat in the years to come, but not quite yet.
And while Press and Brian aren’t Rapinoe and Holiday, they’re good players who would start for nearly every other team in this World Cup.
“It’s a bummer that we don’t have our playmakers [Rapinoe and Holiday],” said Klingenberg after the Colombia game. “Obviously, they’re incredibly important to the team and our team chemistry, and a lot of creative things go through them. So unfortunately we’re just going to have to make it work against China. And luckily we have a really deep roster filled with incredible talent. So I’m excited for those players to step in and step up.”