The fits and starts of breaking down last night’s United States women’s national team victory always lead me to the same point: the first game of the tournament. The U.S. beat Australia, 3-1. The Matildas have gone on to win two of three games, draw a third and famously make the quarterfinals at Marta and Brazil’s expense. With two weeks’ hindsight, the win seems damn impressive, even if the performance drew a collective “meh” at the time.
The reason I go back to Australia is last night’s game against Colombia told us nothing about the team. Not just nothing new. Nothing, period. The 2-0, Round of 16 win in Edmonton put the U.S. into the quarterfinal, but thanks to an early second-half red card to Colombian goalkeeper Catalina Pérez, 44 minutes of the match were played 11-on-10. Up until that point, the score was 0-0, but the play leaned in the U.S.’s favor from the start. It all confirmed what we’d suspected: The U.S. is better than the Colombians but not so much better that the Cafeteras can’t give the team some trouble.
That trouble was alleviated with an Alex Morgan goal, one that caught third-choice goalkeeper Stefany Castaño cheating toward blocking a cross. (Starting goalkeeper Sandra Sepúlveda was suspended, though Castaño had played previously in this tournament.) Any doubt faded away when Megan Rapinoe drew a penalty that Carli Lloyd converted. Had Abby Wambach not pulled the U.S.’s first penalty kick well wide of the post, doubt may have faded long before.
One red card, two penalty kicks, a third-string goalkeeper’s key mistake and a half playing up a player. It’s neither something to take heart in nor a match to dwell on. Soccer happened to the U.S. and Colombia on Monday, and unfortunately, there’s little we can draw from it. We still don’t if the U.S. is actually contender-level good nor do we have any reason to believe it can’t let pressure make them, as they’ve done before.
That’s not to say nothing important happened. In fact, there’s the potential for one somewhat innocuous first half moment to define the United States’ tournament. Wide midfielder Megan Rapinoe, the only consistent attacking presence the U.S. has had this tournament, picked up a yellow card. That doesn’t sound terrible until you know Rapinoe was also carded in that opening match against Australia. Two yellows in at any point in the first six games means you miss a match. Rapinoe will be in the stands when the U.S. faces China in Ottawa on Friday.
China is a team that I picked to bow out early, but that prediction was mostly a function of the format (and me being an idiot, but more on this, below). I thought a very young team would be decent, lose three close games to decent teams, and go home with a valuable learning experience. I was wrong. With young teams, it happens. China’s arrived sooner than I’d thought.
Turbine Potsdam’s Wang Fei has been one of the tournament’s best goalkeepers. Left winger Hang Pen has shown an ability to break down any right back short of Ali Krieger, and now she gets Ali Krieger. Wang Lisi’s speed and precision will test Becky Sauerbrunn’s ability to make the right decisions jumping out of defense and into midfield, and China’s back four has helped keep two clean sheets and hold another team, Canada, scoreless until an injury-time penalty kick.
If you had limited resources and had to could construct an underdog that could give the U.S. trouble, this could be it. Game-stealing goalkeeping. Organization in defense and midfield. Skill players that can beat you with speed going forward. It’s not overwhelming talent. It’s well distributed talent.
As for the U.S., it’s difficult to overstate the importance of Rapinoe. We’ve talked about it before, but I’m still coming to grips with it. Between injuries, ineffectiveness, and the state of the U.S.’s player pool, there have been times this cycle when I wondered if Rapinoe should even be in the team, let alone starting. (And let alone the focal point of the team’s attack!)
I feel like an idiot now.
Without Rapinoe, this team would be clueless. It would have no way of attacking a set up defense. It would struggle to find a consistent way to transition through the middle of the field. It would be without a player who has played a part in half of the team’s goals (two goals, one assist this tournament). If you ever take anything I write too seriously, know this: At one point in the last two years, I was wondering if Rapinoe’s spot in the team should be given to a younger player. And now she’s the team’s most important player at a World Cup. I’m a moron.
If Rapinoe keeps playing like this, all the problems with the forward corps can be offset. The midfield that gets disconnected from the forwards? Rapinoe fills that gap. The team’s lack of creativity, dynamism, ability to build play in the middle third? Rapinoe not only addresses these problems but she might be the team’s only solution.
Might. The team has three days to figure it out what to do without her, something that could involve a greater dependence on Tobin Heath, likely to assume Rapinoe’s place on the left of midfield, or mean more balls played over the top of the defense to Alex Morgan. Maybe head coach Jill Ellis does both. Unfortunately, the player that might be most effective at playing those balls over the top, midfielder Lauren Holiday, also picked up a yellow card and will also be suspended.
That’s the team’s best attacker out. And although Holiday had a slow start to the tournament, she is still the team’s best distributor from midfield. Now she’s out, too. Not exactly what you want to hear going into a quarterfinal against a team that’s allowed two open-play goals in four games.
So what does the U.S. do? Before even talking about replacements, the team needs to play better. Bottom line. At some point, Carli Lloyd needs to be Carli Lloyd, and her Woman of the Match honor last night belied the fact that she was largely a non-factor until Colombia lost a player. That’s been the story of her tournament. The team’s going to have to get production out of Heath and whomever replaces Rapinoe (likely Christen Press), because while Morgan is shaking off her injury-induced rust, her strike partner, superstar/legend Abby Wambach, has been useless.
Yes, useless. That might be generous. There’s actually a case to be made that she’s been harmful. Last night’s terribly missed penalty kick really drove it home. Wambach has one goal in four games, but it was off a corner kick against a Nigeria team that had already conceded twice from corners before (and did a terrible job defending on Wambach’s goal). She has no assists, and although I’m sure she’s set up at least one chance, she’s not doing so with any meaningful frequency. The valuable contributions she used to make dropping into midfield, linking up play, and trailing behind a dangerous Morgan have evaporated. Aside from the Nigeria goal, she’s only put two shots on target: one a speculative attempt early last night from beyond the penalty area; the other an easily bounced header from near the penalty spot that didn’t force Nigeria’s goalkeeper to move.
Baseball and basketball have these advanced metrics like Value Over Replacement Player that take all the available data, boil it down into one number, and spit out a measure, one that compares the player’s contributions to a baseline level of performance. Soccer doesn’t have those types of measures yet, but think about everything Wambach has done and compare that to what a player of reasonable talent would be doing in her place. Chance creation. Chance conversion. Defending (Wambach is doing little pressing from the front). Facilitating play. Converting penalty kicks. If the reasonable replacement for Wambach is fifth-choice striker Amy Rodriguez or Lindsey Horan, the 21-year-old Paris Saint-Germain striker who is arguably the best forward not in this team, then Wambach is probably performing below this theoretical replacement level. It’s not reasonable to assume either of those players would be worse.
Compounding the Wambach issue is what’s coming out of her mouth — not necessarily a problem within the team but a possible indicator of a lack of perspective. Earlier this tournament she drew wide derision for suggesting the artificial surfaces were costing the U.S. goals. Not costing all teams goals. Costing the U.S. goals. Last night, however, she implied referee Stephanie Frappart was targeting Rapinoe and Holiday with her yellow cards.
“I don’t know if they were yellows. Who knows?” Wambach said after the game, as relayed by USA Today sports. “It seemed like she was purposefully giving those yellows to the players she knew were sitting on yellows. I don’t know if it was just a psychological thing. Who knows?”
Funny Wambach mentions psychology. As Reuters confirmed, comments like these could draw a reprimand from FIFA, who rightly look down on any player questioning the impartiality of its officials. Wambach certainly knows this, but she’s also coming off another ineffective game, one that included an embarrassing penalty miss. Is she trying to self-sabotage, perhaps earn a suspension that would absolve her of trying to improve in the quarterfinals? I don’t know. Who knows? Trying to predict this would be like speculating as to whether a referee has a personal vendetta against your teammates.
I might be just be pulling this out of my ass, throwing it into the conversation, and … ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Wambach is certainly capable of playing better, but in every imaginable sense, she’s underperforming. And given all the hype coming into this tournament that put her at the center of the U.S.’s efforts, often casting her as a similar player to what she was in the past (she’s not), it’s important to point out: Wambach not only hasn’t been good in Canada, but she hasn’t been particularly good leading into Canada. Yet nobody on your television box seemed to want to tell you.
Honest question: What would Abby Wambach have to do to be benched? Given talents like Press and Rodriguez in reserve, it’s reasonable to think benching Wambach might help the U.S. It’s not an absurd question. At least two of her peers have been outperforming her for some time.
I asked my Twitter followers last night, and nobody thought a benching was even possible. The U.S. is either all-in on the Wambach rouse or, more cynically, are actually under Wambach’s control. Some samples:
The worst part about this? Wambach could score two goals against China. It’s not out of the question. And that wouldn’t change a thing about the equation. Just as it was in 2011, the U.S. remains defined by Wambach, but instead of having a world player of the year-caliber player (an award I supported), they have somebody who probably shouldn’t get more than 30 minutes in any game. At most.
So for the second time, I ask: What does the U.S. do? Bench Wambach? Not going to happen. Put her, Morgan, the back five (Hope Solo in goal; Meghan Klingenberg, Becky Sauerbrunn, Julie Johnston and Ali Krieger in defense) and Carli Lloyd into the lineup. Put it in ink. Tobin Heath has started two games in a row, and there’s no reason to think she won’t start a third. That’s nine, and based on Ellis’s previous choices, Press and Morgan Brian are likely to take up the vacant spots.
It could be Shannon Boxx in the middle over Brian. Press could stay on the bench in favor of Brian or Heather O’Reilly wide. Ellis has patterns, but they’re not set in stone. In some areas, it’s hard to predict what she’ll do.
In others, it’s not. Wambach has started three of four matches this tournament and came off the bench in the fourth. She has underperformed for over a year, didn’t even play in club soccer leading up to this tournament, yet has a starting spot that seems as assured as Solo’s, Lloyd’s, or Sauerbrunn’s. What a world.
In that world, some uncertainties are starting to leak out. In tournaments like this one, that’s not uncommon, but when you look throughout the U.S. team, there’s some major kindling in place. O’Reilly – a long-time loyal solider – hasn’t played at all. Press, arguably the team’s best forward (often played in midfield), hasn’t started the last two games. Wambach is mouthing off and is unbenchable, and now the team will be without its two best midfielders in the quarterfinals.
It better win. It just might. When you make every game you against the world, these type of problems are expected, not debilitating.
But if this team doesn’t win, it’s got all the symptoms of a project that’s going to be blown up. And people will stand around the wreckage pointing fingers. And one player – a legendary player who has given more to the team than anybody else – will be targeted more than most.