In the end, the Americans breezed comfortably into the last 16. Some pundits criticized them for making heavy weather of the first round, but I’m more of a “glass half-full” kinda guy.
It’s true that too often they appeared disjointed; their passing was neither as crisp nor as sharp as it should have been, and the shot-shy attack managed a solitary goal in three hours play. You are right to expect fewer unforced errors and greater attacking penetration from the country ranked second in the world.
But as the competition progresses, I predict better link-up play between the midfield and the strikers. Star forward Alex Morgan managed an encouraging hour against Nigeria — her first start in months — and getting her match-fit quickly will be vital if the United States is to win the trophy. It’s easy to forget she is still only 25, but going into the tournament, she had an incredible 51 goals and 32 assists in 84 appearances.
However, World Cup-winning soccer teams are built on a strong defense, and only one of the other 23 nations conceded fewer goals. After a rocky start for the back four in the first half during the opening game against Australia, Hope Solo was barely tested in the subsequent 225 minutes.
Indeed the USA was so commanding in the final match against Nigeria they were able to sub in Christie Rampone just eight days shy of her 40th birthday. The sole survivor from the 1999 World Cup squad, she is now the oldest player to ever appear in the finals. It’s already been a banner competition for the golden oldies — Brazil’s 37-year-old Formiga broke the record for the oldest scorer in tournament history when she netted against South Korea.
It was always a touch of hyperbole to call it the Group of Death, but it was probably the toughest section as it featured three nations all ranked in the world’s top 10. The reward for coming out on top is a second round contest with Colombia. They are ranked lower than two of the three countries the Americans have already faced, and it’s a much preferable draw to taking on the talented Brazilians at this stage, which is the fate of group runner-up Australia.
The World Cup has yet to grab the imagination of the global audience, and the first stage was mostly low-key and pedestrian in contrast to the men’s tournament last year, when nearly every day brought another surprise result. This year, nearly all the first 36 matches went as predicted — with one exception.
In an historic upset, Colombia produced the biggest shock in the competition’s history to beat France 2-0. The South Americans are ranked 28th, 25 places below the Europeans, who are one of the favorites to be crowned champions, and the USA will be hoping that lightning doesn’t strike twice in this particular World Cup.
Meanwhile, host Canada reached the knockout round for the first time since 2003, something that will have delighted not just the home fans but neutrals and organizers as well.
Maybe just for a day, furrowed brows were replaced by smiles on the faces of a few FIFA executives.