Group play and the first knockout stage for the United States and Canadian Women’s National Teams at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup has been a viewing experience that some might not wish to relive. Despite both teams posting three shutouts, winning their groups unbeaten, and seeing off their round of 16 opponents, the soccer ON THE FIELD has not been good. Neither team has been cohesive (or at times coherent) in attack, relying on defensive shape and their goalkeepers to buy time until the offense finds its feet and gets the necessary goal to eventually win. With the quarterfinals upcoming this weekend (US vs. China on Friday, Canada vs. England on Saturday), both teams should be concerned that a shock result and early exit could be forthcoming.
The Route 1 game that the US has reverted to in Canada is not working and, aside from the take-the-bull-by-the-horns play of Megan Rapinoe against Australia and Colombia, has not produced more than a single goal from the run of play in any match. With Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday suspended for the match against China due to yellow card accumulation (seriously, those two having to be the ones taking the professional fouls on this team?!?!), a makeshift midfield will have to find a way to break down a defensively-disciplined squad that will want to slow the tempo and hold the match at 0-0 as long as possible against the Americans. The US plays this match on two days fewer rest than China (travel is equal since both played their round of 16 matches in Edmonton), which could mean additional changes to the first XI will need to be made.
Canada’s situation heading into their match with England is, well, odd. They should be considered the underdog against every possible opponent remaining in the competition, but it also doesn’t seem as though they are “playing with house money” yet in terms of expectations or pressure. The lack of a heartbeat in the middle of the park continues to stymie the style of play coach John Herdman wants this team exhibiting. The return of Rhian Wilkinson to right back for the match against Switzerland allowed Josee Belanger to move back up to the forward line, resulting in a goal and the team’s advancement to the quarterfinals. To make it to the final weekend, however, this team needs Diana Matheson on the field, and that creates a quandary at the present time. With limited substitutions and the potential for a match to go to extra time (meaning 120 minutes instead of 90) and penalty kicks, I don’t think you can take the gamble and start her if you know you will have to sub for her at some point. Therefore, my strategy would be to go more conservative over the first 60 minutes, then insert her. The real “roll the dice” moment would be having to put her in at halftime should the team be down a couple, as then you have little-to-nothing to lose in making the decision. Whereas the Wilkinson re-introduction was more of a calculated risk (if it didn’t work out, you could sub in Foligno or Leon and move Belanger back to RB), starting Matheson is more the push-all-your-chips-to-the-center move.
The next couple of days should be a small reprieve from the wall-to-wall action of the past two weeks, but the nerves for fans of the remaining participants should rev up as game time nears. I still think both the US and Canada advance to the semifinals, but they must raise their games to make it more than a educated guess.