Win and move on — it’s what the knockout stage is all about. Score one goal or 10, does it really matter? When you’re a two-time World Cup winning side and you wear the crest of the United States, the how almost matters as much as the result.
So, color a lot of people unimpressed with another clean sheet from the USWNT and more concerned with the one in the 1-0 winning scoreline on Friday night.
Heading in to the quarterfinal matchup with China, many focused on the missing pieces of Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday for the United States women’s national team. Given the reliance on the dynamic play of Rapinoe and steadying force of Holiday, concerns were valid.
Yet there was one glaring thing holding this team back regardless of who was in or out of the lineup — a simple lack of finishing on chances created by themselves and opponents.
If there’s one thing the United States women’s national team wasn’t lacking in during the first four matches of it’s 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup journey, it was chances. They’ve been in abundance, to the tune of 21 shots on target in four matches.
However, the USWNT has turned those 21 shots on target in to just six goals and have missed more shots off target than on. Most telling is likely the fact that many of those “shots off target” came from absolute sitters and open chances.
Speaking of that…one of the three replacements in the starting lineup, Amy Rodriguez gave us all a great look at what a sitter really is. Rodriguez was sent through thanks to a great pass from the outside of Carli Lloyd’s foot, only to see her own deft flick of the outside of her right foot sail somewhere towards the North Pole.
Embarrassing as that moment was, it was a clear sign that this version of the USWNT was going to play with pace and daring — two things sorely lacking in the four games leading up to the quarterfinal. In fact, one wouldn’t have been far off to call the United States’ effort boring and uninspired.
However, even with the more athletic and dynamic lineup put out by manager Jill Ellis, the same problem that has plagued the USWNT all tournament long was still there. Namely, the United States couldn’t finish in the final third of the pitch.
Knowing Germany awaited if it were to win, putting on a goal-scoring show would’ve been nice. Instead this group did exactly what it did in every other game this tournament — create chance after chance and get nothing to show for it.
The United States missed on over a half-dozen golden opportunities in the first half alone. Rodriguez’s miss was followed up by near misses from the likes of Julie Johnston (who had one blocked off the line), Carli Lloyd (on a driven free kick), Alex Morgan (another blocked shot from deep inside the Chinese penalty box) and others in on the attack.
It took 55 minutes and over six shots on target before the United States finally broke free, in somewhat ironic fashion as well. With Wambach sitting on the bench, it was a long ball out of the back by Jill Johnston that connected with Carli Lloy’ds head from near the penalty spot and in to the back of the net.
The United States scoring from a long ball over the top to a waiting head was tailor-made for the game of Wambach, but was also one of the things holding this group back. However, having Wambach out showcased how a dynamic pairing up top could transform how this team looked.
Without her in the lineup the game flowed better, the United States played with more gusto and confidence in the attacking end and there was a huge upswing in creative play by this side. That kind of flair will be needed against the German’s, who bring the offense themselves.
The question is, will Ellis and the coaching staff dare to keep Wambach on the bench for the type of grand stage this match will be on. Doing so against China or Nigeria wasn’t a big gamble, but the rewards of this match may outweigh anything Wambach’s limited skill set (at this point in her career) could provide.
While the 1-0 result was good and advancing is the end game, it would’ve been great to see an offensive explosion. Seeing a German team that has clamped down on any and all teams it has played in the next round, some big time confidence on the offensive side of things was what was needed.
Not getting that explosion should make this team worry as they take on the world’s No. 1 team on next Tuesday. Unless the chances created turn in to more than one goal, the United States can expect to see itself on the outside looking in at the goal of a third World Cup title.