Breaking down the US win over Colombia

It wasn’t a pretty match for the U.S. Women’s National team but a stellar performance from the defense again prevented any real dangerous chances from a Colombian side that was clearly not intimidated by the No. 2 ranked team in the world. The result was a hard fought but rather ugly 2-0 win for the Americans. The Colombians played inspired soccer led by their dynamic playmaker, Lady Andrade, whose skill on the ball was magical to watch.

The US again played a one-dimensional game dependent on set pieces and long balls into the box looking for the head of Julie Johnston, Carli Lloyd, or Abby Wambach. While the Americans hoped to create the kind of energy and inspired play that would make this their statement game moving into the quarterfinals, it was instead back to the grind, highlighted by infrequent moments of brilliant individual efforts or a flurry of quick combinations that never translated into the sustained level of quality play that their fans have come to expect.

A quick US start is neutralized

The Yanks appeared to get off to a quick early start when a great ball from Alex Morgan at the top of the box found its way to the feet of Tobin Heath for a strike on goal. Wambach was there to put in the rebound off the keeper but she was in an offside position and the goal was disallowed. The Colombia side got their feet under them at that point and played head-to-head with the Americans for the rest of the first half. Typically it is the second half where an underfunded side without the kind of performance, fitness, medical, and support specialists start to fall off due to fatigue but the Colombians hung tough for the entire game.

The synergy that had been so electric between Wambach and Morgan in the early stages of their last group game against Nigeria was not present against the Colombians. The space between the two of them made it impossible to play combinations off one another, which would have allowed them to present the kind of dangerous opportunities that they created against Nigeria. Too often the far post runs by Lloyd and Wambach were on the same trajectory at the end of crosses. This lack of communication and awareness of their teammate’s movements off the ball resulted in a number of missed chances.

Colombia did an excellent job of neutralizing flank play from the US as Megan Rapinoe and Heath were frequently doubled, or even triple, teamed as soon as they received the ball. The Colombians ability to do so was at least partially based on the predictable and slow play of the US through the central midfield as the speed of play and quick movement off the ball that allowed the Americans to combine so dynamically at times against Nigeria was absent. Additionally, Johnston struggled to replicate the impressive ability she had shown in the group games to build out of the back with her outside defenders, and playing penetrating balls to the feet of the forwards or to those of the wide midfielders.

One dimensional

When the Americans are described as playing “one-dimensional” soccer this means they are completely bypassing the midfield – especially the flanks – and are instead playing long, direct balls to the two strikers in a 4-4-2 system. Fox color commentator Tony DiCicco, who led the 1999 US team to a World Cup Championship as head coach and did the same for the U-20 team in 2008, began voicing his frustration from the broadcast booth, criticizing the lack of organization that has resulted in the inability of the US to put together dynamic combinations beyond the few short spurts that have led to the team’s most dangerous chances for goals.

Speaking on SiriusXM FC after the game, Michelle Akers, perhaps the greatest player in the history of the women’s game, echoed DiCicco’s frustration and was also candid in her assessment of the team’s performance. “So when we struggle…or when in our opinion the coach isn’t handling the personnel right, the lineup sucks, the subs are sketchy, we’re not all on the same page, that’s me out there that and I can feel it with Tony too. We take it personally,” said Akers, adding, “If [US head coach Jill Ellis] is pleased with the way we played tonight then what the hell is she doing coaching our U.S. team?” She and DiCicco have been through it all and know the kind of leadership, organization, and cohesiveness that is required to go the distance.

DiCicco pointed out during his commentary — without directly criticizing Ellis — that this inability to play fast-paced, fluid soccer is partially due to a system of play that is causing so many of problems for the US attack. While his points are in theory very good ones, a very strong understanding by the players as to what their roles are in the variables presented by a 4-3-3 is also required.

Typically in that system, the three attackers must play high pressure defense if the ball is lost in the defensive third. Thus far, the Americans have played a conservative restraining line, and have shown little urgency in a quick counterattack or purposeful positive touches after winning back the ball defensively that would be effective in this system. Since there seems to be a lack of understanding as to player roles in the traditional 4-4-2 system the team is currently playing, it is highly unlikely those roles will suddenly become clearly defined in their current system, let alone in a change to a new one, even with the injection of new personnel for their next game.

A quick US counterattack results in a game-changing foul

It wasn’t until the 47th minute that the effectiveness of a quick counterattack by the Americans changed the game. After Holiday won a ball from a Columbian player, she immediately looked up to find a wide open Rapinoe on the left flank. Rapinoe took the ball out of the air with a single touch. On her second touch, she played a 40-yard bending ball into the path of Morgan, who was on one of her blazing runs all the way from her own half, that connected with her at the top of the penalty box. A single touch by Morgan would have beat the keeper allowing her a simple tap in with her next touch.

The mistimed tackle from the Colombian goalkeeper, and resulting red card, became the game-changing moment of the match.

There was perhaps some justice for Las Chicas Superpoderosas when Wambach, much to the delight of Colombia’s supporters, shanked the ensuing penalty kick — whether the foul on Morgan actually occurred in the penalty area was debatable.

Nevertheless, it didn’t take long for the Americans to capitalize on Colombia’s inexperienced replacement goalkeeper when five-straight one-touch balls at the top of the box ended with a pass by Krieger to the feet of Morgan, whose first touch in tight space allowed her to beat the Colombian defense and put her in an ideal position to either pass to one of her teammates or take the shot herself.

There’s a saying in the game: “If a keeper gets beat far post then it is a great shot. If they get beat near post then they lose their job.” In this case, the Colombian keeper cheated slightly expecting a cross and Morgan cracked a shot near post that went off the keeper’s hand as she leaned the wrong way. The US not only had their first goal, they also showed how exciting and effective they can be when they play the ball quickly.

The Americans soon put away the stubborn Colombian side after good dynamic play between Klingenberg and Rapinoe. The sequence began when Holiday settled a bad giveaway at midfield to quickly find the feet of Klingenberg on the left flank, who then ran at the defense until the Colombian’s committed and so opened up a passing lane for Rapinoe to run into.

Rapinoe’s first touch beat the Colombian defender, who for the second time in the game took her down in the box. This time the call was made and the penalty kick awarded. After Wambach’s earlier miss, Lloyd stepped up and buried it in the back of the net.

To the credit of the resilient Columbian team, they continued with poise and determination highlighted by their technical prowess. After Wambach was subbed out in the 70th minute for the young Morgan Brian, and Christen Press came in for Rapinoe a few minutes later, glimpses of Lloyd’s strengths as an offensive threat surfaced with a number of dangerous shots from the top of the box. The US subs worked hard defensively and moved the ball well connecting quite effectively through the midfield.

On to the quarterfinals

Both France and Germany made statements in their Round of 16 games against South Korea and Sweden, respectively. Monday’s game against Colombia was the game that the Americans needed to come out and do the same.

That didn’t happen.

Instead, the Americans again prevailed in what was perhaps an ugly, but still successful, outing and now move on to play a young Chinese team in the quarterfinals. However, while the frustrations the Colombian team caused the French in the surprising 2-0 group play upset of the world’s No. 3 ranked squad didn’t unravel the Americans, they still caused a devastating blow to their rival’s lineup in the next round in drawing fouls that resulted in second yellow cards for both Holiday and Rapinoe, who will now have to sit in the stands to cheer on their squad in the quarterfinals. Fortunately, China is not what they used to be and although they have revamped their program recently, this young and inexperienced team is led by a 22-year old captain in Wu Halyan.

Luckily, however, FIFA made the decision before the tournament to set up the brackets in order maximize ticket sales. While these France and Germany have clearly shown they should be the teams on a collision course for a meeting in the World Cup Championship, they’ll instead face each other in the quarterfinals on Friday.

So, even without Rapinoe and Holiday, the Americans still have a chance to get past China and into the semifinals where, as the saying goes, anything can happen. Without yet putting together a statement game, and now facing great adversity without two key starters, the US has to pull together in order to once again survive and advance. Numerous commentators and former national team players have stated, a US defense backed by Hope Solo in goal is good enough to win the World Cup. If the US attack continues to click only intermittently, the validity of this claim will surely be tested.

But, if the team, backed by its strong defense, can generate a few timely goals along the way, their chances at raising the trophy are as good as anyone’s.


  1. The US is playing soccer using rudimentary geometry hacking acute and obtuse angles while the Japanese are using sin cosine and tangent…
    …their movement a butterfly beating its wings bouncing off the circumference and is lovely to watch.

  2. Andy Muenz says:

    Hopefully we’ll see next week which is the better strategy: Completely control the game like Germany/France or Survive and Advance like the US.

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