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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

U.S. Women Reach Their Seventh Straight World Cup Quarterfinal After 2-0 Win Vs. Colombia

After four games at the 2015 World Cup in Canada, I think we are starting to get a pretty good sense of what the U.S. women's national team is all about: they are an outstanding defensive team that for whatever reason simply has trouble scoring goals. It is not the most attractive brand of soccer but so far it has been effective as the U.S.' shutout streak reached 333 minutes (and counting) after a 2-0 victory over Colombia at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium. This sets up a juicy rematch of the 1999 World Cup Final with China on Friday night (7:30, FOX).

There was little chance of the U.S. losing this match, even though they mostly sleepwalked through a scoreless first half. It only took them the first 21 minutes of the second half to take control and put Colombia in the rearview mirror. It started in the 47th minute when Colombian goalkeeper Catalina Perez chopped down Alex Morgan on the edge of the area, earning a red card. Abby Wambach subsequently blew the ensuing penalty kick (blasting it wide of the net) but the U.S. would soon take advantage of Colombia playing with 10 women and also down to their backup goalkeeper-Stefany Castano-in the country's biggest match ever.

Morgan opened her account in Canada with a gift from Castano in the 53rd minute: rather than cross it, Morgan chose to put a tough angle shot on net and surprisingly, it trickled in. Ali Krieger had the assist on Morgan's 3rd all-time goal at the World Cup (each scored in knockout games with the last coming in the 2011 Final vs. Japan). The U.S. received another penalty kick in the 66th minute, this time earned by Megan Rapinoe after she made a dangerous attacking run into the box. Carli Lloyd got a crack at the second penalty kick and she came through for the insurance tally.

Colombia never really put together any significant offensive pressure so it was another light workload for goalkeeper Hope Solo (8th World Cup shutout, 87th all-time; tied Brianna Scurry for most wins by an American (133)). That won't always be the case and while China is not the powerhouse that they used to be, they figure to pose more of a challenge than Colombia. There is also the innate pressure on the Americans, something that only host Canada can relate to at the moment; they are expected to be the best and that can be tough to live up to at all times.

Furthermore, the bad news to come out of this match for the U.S. is that star midfielders Lauren Holiday and Rapinoe both picked up their second yellow cards of the tournament so they receive an automatic suspension vs. China. It is also a short turnaround to Friday and they'll be traveling to Ottawa so this should be a good test for head coach Jill Ellis who thus far hasn't exactly impressed. I would like to see veteran Heather O'Reilly perhaps get a start against China (she has yet to see the field in Canada) with their two best midfielders out but Ellis subbed in Morgan Brian and Christen Press tonight so they seem like the safest bet to go into the starting lineup.

This is certainly not the way we thought the U.S. would play but if they win the World Cup next weekend, we won't complain. It is a clearly imperfect team but they have enough strengths and individual talent that they can still go all the way. The winner of U.S.-China will meet Germany or France in the semifinals on June 30.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Your 2015 World Cup Update: The U.S. Women Top Group D With 1-0 Victory Over Nigeria

Well the good news is that the U.S. women's national team advanced out of Group D (by far the toughest Group) unbeaten (2-0-1) with a 1-0 win vs. Nigeria this evening at Vancouver's BC Place. At the moment, all that we know about their round-of-16 match at the 2015 World Cup is that it will take place on Monday night (8, Fox Sports 1) at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium. The opponent will be the best third-place finisher from either Group B, E or F-to be determined by tomorrow's results on the final day of group play.

As you can tell by the modest final score, once again the United States struggled to find the back of the net-an issue which has really plagued them in the last two matches. Their lone goal was an important one in many ways: Abby Wambach leaped up to volley Megan Rapinoe's corner kick with her left foot in the 45th minute. The beautiful tally was huge at the time since the U.S. had dominated possession and scoring chances in the first half with nothing to show for it until then. On a personal level, Wambach needed that (her 14th World Cup goal; tied for 2nd all-time) badly since she had looked terrible so far at this tournament and her confidence had to be wavering at least a little bit.

While the offense still worries us, the U.S.' defense seems to get better with each match (granted Nigeria is a step down from Australia-who finished second-and Sweden who placed third). Goalkeeper Hope Solo picked up her second straight shutout and this one required no heavy lifting at all (2 saves that I can't even remember). The United States has scored just four goals so far and only allowed one. Nobody and I mean nobody could have predicted that the breakout stars for the U.S. up to this point have been defenders Meghan Klingenberg and Julie Johnston. Haha who? The latter had the other play of the game for the Americans besides Wambach's goal: she was beaten by a perfect through ball but recovered in time to block the shot out of bounds for a harmless corner kick.

I get that Nigeria had to go for the win but they were pretty reckless: earning five yellow cards in the match including two for defender Sarah Nnodim who was subsequently ejected in the 69th minute. Even though the U.S. was only up by a goal, when that happened you knew that Nigeria was done for good. Alex Morgan and Wambach both started at forward for the U.S. for the first time at this World Cup along with midfielder Tobin Heath. Morgan had two great chances that were stopped by Nigeria's goalkeeper Precious Dede (name of the year?) but it was nice to see her play for 66 minutes after token appearances off the bench in the first two games. Heath didn't do a whole lot but you could say the same thing about Carli Lloyd who has been invisible while Lauren Holiday was very solid vs. Nigeria.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

After Shaky 1st Half, U.S. Women Settle Down For 3-1 Win vs. Australia In 2015 World Cup Opener

They'll never admit it but the U.S. women's national team is facing plenty of pressure to deliver their first World Cup title since 1999. Tonight, in their 2015 World Cup opener at Winnipeg Stadium, they started slowly but found themselves in the second half of a 3-1 win over Australia. By virtue of Sweden's unexpected 3-3 draw with Nigeria which preceded this match, the U.S. is on top of Group D with three points.

In the first half, the U.S. did not look like one of the top teams in the world. In fact, if not for goalkeeper Hope Solo, who made two spectacular saves, they could have been down at least a goal or two. Instead they took an early 1-0 lead in the 12th minute on a fortuitous deflection. Megan Rapinoe had the confidence to take a shot from outside the box and she was rewarded as it bounced off a defender past Australian goalkeeper Melissa Barbieri.

The Matildas are ranked 10th in the world for a reason though, they are a quality side and not a pushover like some of the shameful results in the first few days of the tournament (10-0, 6-0 etc). They leveled things in the 27th minute as Lisa De Vanna hammered a shot into the corner that even Solo couldn't reach. The first half ended 1-1 and that seemed about right. Neither team made any changes at halftime but the U.S. clearly was a different side in the final 45+ minutes. They had way more possession which helped to slowly wear down Australia.

Midfielder Christen Press was playing in her first World Cup match and she immediately became a nationwide hero by scoring the game-winning goal in the 61st minute for a 2-1 U.S. advantage. Truth be told, ex-Canadian Sydney Leroux did most of the heavy lifting by beating her defender down the flank with her speed then passing it back to the top of the box where Press was able to one-time it in.

For good measure, Rapinoe scored a wonderful goal in the 78th minute (from Carli Lloyd) that basically sealed it. Australia gave her too much time and space to operate so she made them pay with a quick burst and hard, left-footed shot into the side netting. It was the first time an American woman had scored twice in a World Cup game since 2007.

The U.S. gets the pleasure of staying in lovely Winnipeg for the entire week as they will meet Sweden on Friday night (8, Fox) for what should be a must-see match vs. their former head coach Pia Sundhage. The fact that Sweden only gained one point in their opener means that they could really use three against the United States if they want to advance to the knockout stage. There has always been a nice rivalry between these two countries so this should be the latest chapter.

Hopefully the U.S. can come out much faster and I wouldn't be surprised to see midfielder Tobin Heath (who came on as a substitute in the 68th minute) start vs. Sweden. Alex Morgan is working her way back from an injury so she only appeared for the final 14 minutes. Abby Wambach had a rather poor performance by her lofty standards-missing multiple golden opportunities that she typically buries in the net-but she's not coming out of the starting lineup anytime soon and neither should Leroux.

In terms of cards for the U.S., midfielder Lauren Holiday and Rapinoe each picked one up in an eight-minute span of the second half. Holiday's was way more justified but they count just the same. Needless to say, they don't need Rapinoe (or to a lesser extent Holiday) to miss a match due to a suspension (2 yellow cards). Onto Sweden!