In the first knock-out round of the World Cup, the Americans came up empty-handed in a frustrating first half. Despite fouls, the team found composure and leadership in their defense and in forward Alex Morgan, who notched her first goal since returning from an ankle injury.
The crowd in Edmonton sucked in a collective breath as Alex Morgan slammed into the artificial turf, face first. Whistles came immediately from three different referees, and in seconds, a red card was lofted into the air.
In some ways, it was a simple mistake. The Colombian goalkeeper was forced to go one-on-one with Morgan. She came out too early and dove too late — as most goalkeepers would do when faced with one of the best strikers in the world. In the process, she swung her legs directly into Morgan’s ankles, knocking the forward to the ground in an indisputably dirty move. With the keeper’s ejection, the Colombians were forced to look at 40 more minutes of play with one less player.
To add to the blow, the foul came in the box. The Americans were awarded a penalty kick. And the new goalkeeper — the third-string keeper and youngest player on the Colombian team — was suddenly being warmed up and jogging onto the field to go head-to-head against Abby Wambach, the leading goal-scorer in international soccer.
The keeper took to her line. The ref whistled for play to start. Wambach advanced, and the keeper went right. Wambach took a shot to the left — and choked. The shot swung wide of the left post, missing the goal by several feet. With a stunned look, Wambach covered her eyes with both hands, shaking off encouragement from her teammates.
Minutes later, a cross into the goal box left Morgan wide open along the right flank. With the calm she lacked in the first half, Morgan dodged slightly to the right and blasted a shot towards goal. The shot smarted off the Colombian keeper’s hand and bit into the net.
Morgan was immediately engulfed by hugs from her teammates. Megan Rapinoe leapt on top of the huddle of players, hollering. In the stands, the thousands of American fans roared in celebration of Morgan’s first goal in over three months. The goal gave the U.S. a 1-0 advantage and signalled a change of pace as Morgan returned to her place as the fully-recovered heart of the American offense.
The entirety of the game was chippy, which played into the Americans' hands in the second half. When a Colombian player sent Rapinoe crashing to the ground in the goal box for the second time in a row, the team was awarded their second penalty kick of the night. This time, Carli Lloyd stepped up to take the shot. The keeper dove left. Lloyd aimed a solid, tidy shot into the right side of the net, and the U.S. doubled their lead.
With a one-player advantage, the Americans held steady for the remainder of the half, controlling both ball possession and the pace of the game until the final whistle. The victory earned the U.S. their place in a quarterfinals game against China on Friday.
Despite a sturdy 2-0 win and a confidence-boosting goal for Morgan, the game wasn’t all positives. Rapinoe and fellow midfielder Lauren Holliday both received their second yellow cards of the World Cup in the first half, banning them from play in the next game of the tournament.
The loss of Holliday — who struggled with first-touches and passing accuracy in the past three games — is not particularly jarring. Her position can be filled by Morgan Brian, a speedy rookie who has steadily proved herself since her first cap in June 2013, notching four goals and providing a balance that the American midfield sometimes lacks.
But the loss of Megan Rapinoe is the equivalent of a punch in the stomach for the States. Rapinoe is a natural leader, a loud-mouthed, gritty, high-energy player who is lethal both in an assisting and in a scoring position. She opened the World Cup with two goals against Australia, and has been critical in the American attack ever since.
To fill this spot, Ellis must return to the drawing board with her midfield, which has already been a point of contention throughout the World Cup. She could tap Heather O’Reilly, a veteran who has warmed the bench for the entirety of this Cup, for the position. It is also highly likely that Ellis will use Christen Press as an attacking midfielder in the place of Rapinoe, creating an attack-heavy line-up. This, however, would stray away from what is emerging as the key for American success.
While the U.S. team is quick to cite their high power offense as being their main strength, what truly cements this squad’s top position is its backline. With goal-saving headers courtesy of Meghan Klingenberg and impeccable slide tackles by Julie Johnston and Becky Sauerbrunn, the five defensive starters have allowed only one goal this World Cup, and they continued to dazzle tonight.
Each defender is equipped with a unique set of skills that creates a fluid, versatile defense that consistently contributes to the attack without getting caught off guard by sneaky forwards. At the core of this defense is Hope Solo, who directed her defense with the poise of a veteran against the scarce shots from Colombia. With only four shots on goal, Colombia offered a weak attack for Solo to defend, but she remained steady on her line throughout the numerous corner kicks and free kicks of the night.
The other two defensive veterans, Sauerbrunn and right-back Ali Krieger, balanced creating opportunities in the attacking third of the field and remaining close to Solo’s goalbox. Along the right side of the attack, Krieger set up multiple shots on goal, including the swift back-door pass that led to Morgan’s goal. Sauerbrunn stayed tighter to the goal, but received passes and calmly switched the field to allow offensive attacks to build.
Once the Colombians lost one player due to the red card, the defense implemented double-teams, effectively cutting off any opposing forward’s ability to get open for a shot. Combined with Johnston’s aggressive bursts of defending in centerfield and Klingenberg’s smothering presence in the corner, the defense formed a brick wall that was nearly impossible for the undermanned Colombian team to penetrate.
It is this defensive style of play that will buoy the American team, especially with the absence of Rapinoe and Holliday, in the upcoming game against China. The promise of an attack led by a fully-recovered Alex Morgan certainly bodes well for the Americans. But in the end, their streak of shutouts shows what the true American mantra will be in this World Cup — defense, defense, defense.