It was a puzzling sight. The mighty US women’s soccer team, defending Olympic and World Cup champions, reduced to wasting time in the corner to preserve a 2-2 draw against Colombia, who had never so much as scored against them in five previous meetings.
As shocking as that score is, the USA is poised to become the first team to follow a World Cup triumph with Olympic gold. This team is better than the one that won the World Cup last summer, and Catalina Usme’s stunning last-minute equalizer for Colombia will be more of a wake-up call than a confidence-killer.
A long-awaited – and perhaps long-overdue – roster update in the past 12 months has given coach Jill Ellis a younger, more dynamic team than she had in winning the World Cup last summer. Crystal Dunn and Mallory Pugh have energized the US attack. Allie Long, a veteran pro making her first appearance in a major tournament, has been an effective destroyer in midfield.
And it was two of the team’s most experienced players, not the newcomers, who were to blame when Colombia took a shocking 1-0 lead in the final group-stage game on Tuesday. Megan Rapinoe, seeing her first game action since suffering a knee injury in December, gave Colombia a free-kick with a poorly timed tackle. Usme’s ensuing delivery squirted through Hope Solo’s hands and legs into the goal. Solo could also have done better on Usme’s second free-kick goal from an acute angle.
Not that Solo’s place in the squad should be questioned. Her much-lauded performance in a 1-0 win over France wasn’t flawless – she struggled on a couple of set pieces, along with the rest of the defense, and she was lucky no French attackers were able to pounce on a rebound that should have been pushed farther wide. But she has been in good form in NWSL play, and her track record of big saves in big games makes her difficult to omit. When the stakes are higher, Solo’s mistakes are less frequent.
Rapinoe’s play raises a more difficult question for Ellis. Including an unfit player on a small 18-player roster in a compressed tournament with little rest was always a gamble. Heather O’Reilly might have been a better choice for wing play, though with the excellent form of Pugh, Dunn and Tobin Heath, was another winger needed in the first place?
But the USA made it through group play looking far sharper than they did last year, when they stuttered through a 0-0 draw against Sweden and labored to a 1-0 win over Nigeria. Only the steadfast resistance of Colombian goalkeeper Sandra Sepúlveda, who missed last year’s face-off with the USA in the World Cup knockout stages through a red-card suspension, kept the USA from scoring more than twice, and Colombia made the most of their limited chances.
Ellis also managed to rotate players as much as possible. Defensive cornerstone Becky Sauerbrunn and versatile defender/midfielder Kelley O’Hara have played all 270 minutes so far, but Ellis has found time off for Heath, Pugh, Dunn and big-game talisman Carli Lloyd. Sauerbrunn’s usual defensive partner, Julie Johnston, has been able to take two games off to heal a nagging groin problem while Whitney Engen capably filled in.
As expected, France gave the USA a tough battle, but it only showed how far the Americans are still ahead of the pack. Even with the USA’s “whack it to Wambach” tactics long discarded, France are tactically superior and sharper in the midfield. But they simply cannot finish the chances they create. The US women have, as they usually have had, better strikers and better goalkeepers than the rest of the world.
The rest of the world hasn’t looked great in this tournament, either. Sepúlveda’s superb play aside, goalkeeping has been atrocious. Germany had some trouble subduing Zimbabwe before drawing with Australia and losing to Canada.
Brazil are the exception. Playing in front of supportive home fans who may finally rally the country to fully back the women’s game, the Marta-inspired side exploited China’s defensive frailty for a 3-0 win and demolished an underachieving Sweden team 5-1, before completing the group phase with a 0-0 draw against South Africa.
But the USA should be ready for the challenge. Johnston’s return may help on set pieces at either end of the field. Ellis probably doesn’t need to try Rapinoe again in any role other than an extra attacking threat in extra time, when Fifa has decreed teams will be allowed a fourth substitute.
This team is younger than the 2015 model, but it still has the experience to adjust and improve as a tournament progresses. The Colombia result will destroy any complacency that may have crept in, and the USA are unlikely to have a similar letdown the rest of the way.
This article was written by Beau Dure, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 10th August 2016 11.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010