After a winning start against North Korea, the U.S. will turn out against Colombia Saturday (12 pm ET, ESPN) looking to make it two in a row and progress to the quarterfinal stage at the first opportunity. Pia Sundhage's team will have vocal backing in Sinsheim, where U.S. military personnel stationed nearby have helped to swell the crowd to its 25,000 capacity -- and a reasonable TV audience, too: as well as the million-plus watching the lunchtime kickoff against North Korea in the U.S., the game attracted a 25 percent share of the German viewing figures.
North Korea's squad is the youngest at the tournament, Colombia's the second youngest, but the similarities end there; Ricardo Rozo's side presents an almost entirely different challenge. The Koreans tired in the second half, unable to maintain the energy with which they collectively pressed and harried in the first, which helped the U.S. to gradually take control of the game in the final half-hour. By contrast Colombia, despite the physically demanding encounter with Sweden, seemed to warm up as time wore on, sustaining forward momentum better in later attacking moves (though Swedish goalkeeper Hedwig Lindahl wasn't busy, by any means).
The Colombians' self-confidence hasn't gone unnoticed in the buildup to the tournament, and it received a huge boost when it took Sweden almost an hour to score -- in the first half Lotta Schelin had two efforts cleared off the line, and Jessica Landstrom missed a hat trick of simple chances before finally making it 1-0. The early stages of this match could therefore be crucial, and the U.S. hasn't made consistently strong starts this year. Though the difference between the first and second halves against North Korea is in danger of being overstated (I'm still not convinced Korea "dominated" the first. It did, however, create the most dangerous chances), there is no question the U.S. was better in the second.
Colombia knows it has to at least hold the U.S. to a tie if it wants to prolong its first World Cup trip. Though we've been treated to a firsthand glimpse of that eminently YouTube-worthy footwork, not much has happened to change the pretournament feeling that this would be the game in which the U.S. sustains the least damage, but that in itself presents Sundhage with some decisions to make. Her statements to the press this week suggest she'll use this match to field one or two squad players, but who? And where?
On the evidence of the game against North Korea in isolation, Shannon Boxx seems due a seat on the bench. She looked off the pace, was forced to play a slightly unsophisticated game (holding opponents in the literal sense), and was firmly on her heels by the hour mark. In training Thursday, Lori Lindsey joined Carli Lloyd in the center of midfield, a partnership that would give the U.S. more of an attacking impetus down the middle. And, although Boxx is officially the defensive midfielder, Lloyd made a number of important tackles and interceptions against Korea.
However Boxx, who turned 34 this week, is the most physical, most intimidating of the three, and Colombia's central players -- Daniela Montoya (20) and the much-talked about Yoreli Rincon (only 17) -- found life difficult up against the tough-tackling Swedish midfield duo of Caroline Seger and Lisa Dahlkvist. The sublime ball skills of a number of players, the remarkably quick recoveries made by the back line when it was pulled out of shape; neither counted for much when Colombia was forced in to rushed, impatient pass selection in the middle third.
"We're obviously not going to be able to match [the U.S.] physically," Rozo said when speaking to FIFA.com this week. Referee Dagmar Damkova may not be so lenient as some of the referees have been so far at this tournament (certainly Carol Anne Chenard allowed Seger a few hefty challenges), however.
Sundhage also has options in the offense, though she may not feel her attacking players -- against North Korea she started Lauren Cheney on the left of midfield in place of Megan Rapinoe, Heather O'Reilly on the right, and partnered Amy Rodriguez with Abby Wambach up front -- really need tinkering with.
Cheney and O'Reilly often seemed, especially in the first half, the players best able to get behind the defense on their own. Might the coach be tempted to use Cheney alongside Wambach and restore live wire Rapinoe out wide? Sweden hardly eschews a direct approach (Schelin's first chance came straight from Lindahl), but it was able to carve the Colombian defense open best with neat, quick exchanges in the central channel. When it was more ponderous, Natalia Gaitan, Kelis Peduzine and Andrea Peralta were able to get in the way, and goalkeeper Sandra Sepulveda was alive to long balls over the top.
As predicted, the U.S.' area of weakness looked to be the left back position, where central defender Amy LePeilbet isn't especially comfortable. It has often seemed a common sense solution to play the Breakers trio of LePeilbet, Rachel Buehler and Stephanie Cox at the back, alongside Ali Krieger (who was excellent against on Tuesday, giving up no ground down the right), but Christie Rampone's performance against North Korea was rock solid. Her anticipation -- did she miss a single header? -- was superb.
No wonder Sundhage has seemed more reluctant to make changes here, and in fairness Colombia's opening showing might not force her to. Striker Lady Andrade made more of an impact in the final 20 minutes or so, but hadn't really forced the game down Sweden's left. Diana Ospina, like her teammates, spent most of her time in her own half.
Instead it was Carmen Rodallega, playing on the other side, who carried the most threat. You would expect the combination of O'Reilly, Krieger and Rampone to cover that area of the pitch quite comfortably and restrict Rodallega to long shots, as the Swedes did. But the Sarmiento winger obviously favored her right foot; if she were switched to the right, putting her in front of LePeilbet, she could cause more trouble -- especially if Cheney, who drifted in field a fair bit, stays on that side.
It would still be a shock to see Colombia win tomorrow's game. A draw would not put the U.S. in a terrible position, whatever the result in the other Group C fixture, but matching the Swedes' result against Colombia would take the pressure off the final group game (to be played next Wednesday) that will offer yet another kind of challenge for Sundhage's squad. The U.S. would make a statement (and enhance its chances of avoiding Brazil until later in the competition) by reproducing the second-half fluidity and authority it showed against the Koreans.