Reading Team USA’s match reports from this Women’s World Cup is like being in “Groundhog Day.” Friday’s victory over China was a rehash of the same thing I’ve seen for three weeks now.
Many experts are concerned that, even though the U.S. team is winning, it has a misfiring offense. Has it mattered? Not a bit.
The Americans are 90 minutes away from the final. There are 20 teams from all over the globe that started the competition but are now sitting at home watching on TV, wishing they had a “misfiring” attack.
Some criticism is valid, and it’s reasonable to expect the country ranked second in the world to be scoring more goals. But it doesn’t matter what the statistics about possession and completed passes and shots on target read at the end of the game; if you can’t put the ball in the back of the net, eventually that will come back and bite you in the you-know-what.
But it’s important to realize that the U.S. team has been the favorite in every contest so far. Each nation it has faced has planned to nullify and destroy, with players packing the defensive third of the field and concentrating on defending, not attacking.
Even when the Americans scored just six minutes into the second half against China, their opponents changed neither their formation nor their style. They didn’t go gung-ho for a tying goal, remaining cautious about leaving gaps for the Americans’ front line to exploit.
It’s hard to find space and create chances against teams playing this way at the top international tournament, whether it’s for men or women. When the Ivory Coast tried a more attack-minded style in the group stage, Germany repeatedly ripped it apart in a 10-0 rout.
Those same Germans are next up for the U.S. and, when the men met in the group stage at last year’s World Cup, a narrow German victory was good enough to send the Americans through to the next round. But for the women to progress, only a win will do against this formidable foe.
World Cup winners in 2003 and 2007, Germany also has won the past six European championships. It notched 15 goals in the first stage and five more in the two games since. The Germans may be officially rated the best in the world, but they only squeaked past France in the quarterfinals after a narrow win on penalty kicks in what was the tournament’s best match to date.
The French were superb, but missed chances and a contentious penalty kick awarded to the Germans in the dying minutes cost them dearly. But they showed the Americans that the Germans are vulnerable to pace and precision passing and, if the U.S. strikers find their form, they will be confident they can make it to Sunday’s final.
If the U.S. prevails, it will play Japan or England, which knocked out host Canada on Saturday. By claiming two second-stage matches to make it this far, the England women have won as many tournament knockout games in five days as the men have managed in 25 years.
But experience is vital at this level, and the U.S. team has been here before. The win over China meant it has reached at least the semifinals of every major international tournament it has ever played. And a World Cup in Canada is the nearest thing — geographically and metaphorically — to hosting it on home soil.
The Americans have gone more than seven hours without conceding a goal and have only allowed one through five games. If the defense keeps a clean sheet, then at worst the match goes to penalty kicks, while a single half-chance may be enough to win it.
The Germans overcame a spirited French resistance, but now they have to defeat the battle-hardened Americans to rule the world. I think we may have heard this story before, and hopefully it will end the same way — with an American win.