The United States women are through to the knockout round at the World Cup, and they progressed by doing the same thing they always do. They were the most skilled team on the field in each of their group-stage games, but they don’t use that skill advantage. Their game is based on fitness, toughness and the long ball — and always has been.
The team’s talent wasn’t exactly on display in the group games. The team’s defense was rock-solid and beyond reproach, but beyond the back four and goalkeeper Hope Solo, it’s a different story. The team’s midfield has been extremely underwhelming, especially Lauren Holiday and Carli Lloyd in the center of the field. Neither can figure out how to pass or to move in the middle of the United States’ setup, and the result has been chaos.
Without that ability to work the ball through the middle of the field, the U.S. has resorted to launching long balls aimed at any convenient forward, mostly Abby Wambach. This is what U.S. players have always done; they’ve leaned on Wambach winning the long ball as their ultimate trump card for years.
The problem is that Wambach’s not the same player she once was. She’s 35 now, and didn’t even play club soccer this year. The U.S. left her on the field for all 90 minutes in its final group game against Nigeria, even though she appeared too tired to move for the final half-hour, mostly as a fitness exercise. That’s not a good sign, for the team’s focal point — nor is the number of seemingly simple chances she’s failed to even put on goal.
Even when Wambach’s not on the field, the U.S. falls back on the same over-the-top strategy. Against Sweden, the United States started forwards Christen Press and Sydney Leroux, instead of the more familiar pairing of Wambach and speedy Alex Morgan. It might have been a chance to see if Lloyd and Holiday could combine with Press to create chances. Instead, it resulted in one wayward long ball after another, as the midfield moved the ball aimlessly forward and Press and Leroux, neither of whom has the same strengths as Wambach, chased despairingly. The U.S. has backed itself into a corner; it doesn’t appear to have the desire to do anything but launch the long ball.
For the first two games of the knockout round, on Monday against Colombia and then on Friday against the China/Cameroon winner, the United States still might be able to get by with the same old plan. But after that comes a likely semifinal with Germany, the world’s top-ranked side. By then, the U.S.will need a new idea.
• The New York Cosmos were the only NASL team to beat an MLS team in this year’s U.S. Open Cup, defeating New York City FC on penalties this week. Seven of the nine American NASL teams lost their first games, against USL opposition. For the NASL, which wants to be seen as a competitive alternative to MLS, this year’s U.S. Open Cup face-plant is an embarrassment.
• Clint Dempsey earned himself a three-match MLS suspension in extra time of a U.S. Open Cup match against Portland.
He reached into referee Daniel Radford’s pocket, took his official log book, and ripped it to shreds. The ref made Dempsey the third Seattle player to be sent off. It was childish, but given the number of times we’ve seen video clips of players around the world physically attacking refs, maybe this ridiculousness wasn’t so bad.
• Sporting Kansas City is enjoying an impressive MLS resurgence, climbing to second in the West on points per game after a very slow start to its season. It’s been especially impressive given that central defender Ike Opara is out for the season with an injury and forward Dom Dwyer is struggling to score. It’s a little strange that midfielders Benny Feilhaber and Graham Zusi, who are playing wonderfully, were left off the USA’s preliminary Gold Cup roster. Kansas City, which gets their services in July instead of losing them for the month, probably won’t complain.
• Woodbury’s Kassey Kallman has played every minute at center back for the Boston Breakers this season. EqualizerSoccer.com, which closely covers the National Women’s Soccer League, said Kallman has been half of the league’s best center back duo at the halfway point of her second pro season.
She has yet to be tapped for the senior women’s national team, but after success for the USA at the youth levels, and with several senior defenders over 30, a call-up for Kallman in the next World Cup cycle would not be surprising.
Weekend watch guide
Women’s World Cup: Germany vs. Sweden, 3 p.m. Saturday, Fox Sports 1. The first game of the knockout round is one of the best, as top-ranked Germany plays Sweden — fifth in the world but only third place in difficult Group D in this tournament.
Women’s World Cup: Brazil vs. Australia, noon Sunday, Fox Sports 1. Brazil dominated its group, but it will face a much stiffer test against the Matildas, who believe they can compete with the best at this tournament.
MLS: New England at D.C. United, 4 p.m. Sunday, ESPN2. D.C. still leads the Eastern Conference but looks shaky after consecutive losses. New England is second but is facing the near future without midfielder Jermaine Jones (sports hernia).
Copa America: Brazil vs. Venezuela, 4:30 p.m. Sunday, beIN Sports. After a surprise loss to Colombia, Brazil needs a win to be assured of going through to the knockout round — and it’ll have to do it without star Neymar, who was sent off in his last game.