EDMONTON, Alberta—It seemed like a fair question to ask after the U.S. offense had struggled again to create much against a World Cup opponent that was supposed to be overmatched: How is this team going to attack in the quarterfinals against China without the suspended Megan Rapinoe?
“They’re gonna struggle,” deadpanned Rapinoe herself, who joined fellow midfielder Lauren Holiday on the suspended list with their second yellow cards of the tournament in the U.S.’s 2–0 win over Colombia on Monday. After the laughs died down, Rapinoe said: “No, I think we’ll be fine. When you can look down our bench and bring all those players off our bench, I think we’re pretty lucky.”
Perhaps. The truth so far in this tournament is that while the U.S. back line has been immense, the midfield has been disappointing aside from Rapinoe, who made her mark again on Monday. Not only was Rapinoe a threat delivering set-pieces, as usual, but she threaded the pass that sprung Alex Morgan to draw a penalty, and then Rapinoe drew her own penalty off a nice run and pass from Meghan Klingenberg.
Holiday, for her part, has been played out of position in a deeper-lying role, so much so that her face lit up with joy when she talked about being allowed to play her natural No. 10 role late in the game.
Carli Lloyd converted a penalty to give the U.S. some breathing room, but she too has been fighting it in the central midfield. And Tobin Heath’s second straight blah performance on the right flank, where she cut inside too often, made you wonder what Heather O’Reilly has to do to get on the field as a natural winger.
With the personnel the U.S. has available in this World Cup, switching to a 4-1-2-3 with the emerging star Julie Johnston in a defensive midfield role would make sense, but coach Jill Ellis doesn’t appear to want to change things up that much, particularly with just three rest days before Friday’s quarterfinal. Far more likely is continued use of the 4-4-2 against China with Morgan Brian replacing Holiday—Ellis said as much after Monday’s game—and Christen Press coming in for Rapinoe.
“Probably Press,” said Rapinoe when asked who she thought would replace her. “It’s kind of a straight swap. She did well tonight and can be so dangerous. She’s quick, she’s very smart, really good around the box. I think she’ll probably step into that role.”
Whether Brian and Press will be the answer in the midfield remains to be seen, but things can generally only go up when it comes to creating chances, especially in the first half, when Morgan said she “didn’t know if I even got 10 touches. I was just being patient knowing it was going to open up in the second half, and it did. But obviously we need to replicate what we can do in the second half in the first half moving forward.”
As for the U.S. front line, Abby Wambach had her chances, including one shot in the first half that was saved with a one-handed leap by goalkeeper Catalina Pérez. Then Wambach went to the penalty spot after Morgan had drawn a red-card penalty on Pérez, and with a cold goalkeeper (Stefany Castaño) in front of her, Wambach skied her penalty into a low earth orbit.
“I shanked it,” said Wambach, who said she just started working on a new left-footed spot kick in the last two to three months because she had been taking them so long with her right foot. (Wambach was the only American to convert in the 2011 World Cup final penalties against Japan, and she did that with her right foot.) “I’m not giving myself any excuses. I need to bury that.”
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When Rapinoe drew a penalty a few minutes later, Wambach said, “Carli gave me the opportunity to take it again, and I said, ‘No, you get it. Bury it.’”
Wambach also made a comment that she thought French referee Stéphanie Frappart was giving yellows to U.S. players that she knew were one card from a suspension, which was strange and made no sense.
Morgan, for her part, scored her first goal for the U.S. since March 6 against Switzerland at the Algarve Cup, a span of 10 games that have seen Morgan deal with a nagging bone-bruise injury in her knee. Morgan scores much more often with her left foot than her right foot, but her right-footed strike found the net near-post with some help from Castaño.
“I was actually looking to cross it at that point before I shot it, and then I saw her leaning because she knew I was going to cross it,” Morgan said afterward. “So at the last second I changed my mind to shoot it so it didn’t have as much power on it as I would have wanted. But it went in, and that’s all that matters.” Morgan said she had lost track of when she last scored for the U.S., which is something she never wants to happen.
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Morgan is a self-aware player, and she said she knows she can overanalyze things too much in her head and let them drag her down. As her injury issues continued longer than she would have expected before the World Cup, she had a hard time for a bit.
“There was probably a minor freak-out just three weeks before the World Cup just knowing that the recovery process was taking longer than I had expected,” Morgan said. “But I took a deep breath, and I’ve been taking to Abby a lot, every day. We just give each other a lot of confidence, and that helped me get over the hump.”
Another thing that would give Morgan, and U.S. fans, some confidence heading into Friday’s quarterfinal would be an effective replacement for Rapinoe in the midfield. As the games get harder, it’s something that needs to happen.