US needs to address shortcomings or risk disappointing knockout-round elimination

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Because the U.S. Women’s National Team has reached at least the semifinals of every FIFA Women’s World Cup since the inaugural tournament in 1991, it went into the tournament with the expectation that it would continue the streak this summer and likely reach the championship match.

Team USA’s inconsistent performances in the group stage, however, have raised a few concerns about its quest to become the first three-time World Cup champion.

The United States first raised doubts in its match against Australia. The Americans played a shaky full 90 minutes. The team made several poor passes, and the offensive line was unable to truly capitalize on its opportunities presented in the Matildas’ box. In fact, the United States constantly attempted to provide forward Abby Wambach with service up top, but she was unable to find the back of the net. The young Australian side, however, exposed the aging American team’s inability to keep up with its adversaries’ younger legs.

The Americans’ challenges at keeping up with faster opponents once again became evident in their match against the Swedes, when the United States lost possession and nearly suffered the consequences on the counter. The team, however, did not have to resolve a lot of counterattack plays because it did a considerably better job at maintaining possession. The defensive line proved to be more cohesive than it was in the game against the Aussies, but it did have its slip-ups. Were it not for defender Meghan Klingenberg’s save of the match, the USWNT would have probably lost.

On a better note, the United States’ final group match against Nigeria saw the Americans maintain more possession, create several scoring chances and defend well to defeat the Nigerians and advance to the round of 16 as the winner of Group D. But Team USA could have and should have walked away with a better final score than 1-0. The United States should have taken advantage of a Nigerian side that was reduced to 10 players. Instead, the Americans squandered the opportunity to tally more goals and played in a manner that seemed as if they were content to settle for the minimal victory.

The Americans’ absent killer instinct in the match against Nigeria will need to be remedied in the USWNT’s first knockout-stage fixture against Colombia. The Colombians have improved upon their maiden World Cup campaign of 2011 by advancing from Group F as its third-best team. The Americans defeated Colombia in the group stage of the 2011 World Cup, but they cannot afford to underestimate the Colombian underdog. If the United States does, its World Cup run could come to an abrupt end.

Team USA can improve its prospects of winning and going far in the knockout stage by displaying its strong technical ability in order to maintain possession and tire out its opponents. This will then open up the opportunity for forwards Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux to penetrate the opponents’ defensive line. Megan Rapinoe, one of the midfielders whose primary job it will be to provide these passes, is a player with great vision who constantly looks to cross the ball to teammates, making their runs into spaces.

Rapinoe’s approach, however, should not be adopted as the team’s solution to penetrate its opponents’ defense and create scoring opportunities. Team USA needs to vary its strategy by incorporating a ground-ball approach, a tactic that plays in favor of one of its strengths: maintaining possession. This alternative, coupled with players making runs, is an ideal way to exploit the weaknesses of bigger, more physical defenders who are not very fast or adept at keeping up with a technical, on-the-ground style.

If the United States does not address its shortcomings and learn from its mistakes made in the group of death, it may not go very far in the knockout stage. This would not only be its poorest finish in the World Cup but would also mean that the 16-year World Cup drought would extend to two decades.

Manny Flores is the assistant sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].