The U.S. cruises into the WWC quarters
SINSHEIM, Germany -- With the U.S. forwards misfiring, it was left to the American midfield to show them how to finish.
The Americans cruised to a 3-0 victory over Colombia courtesy of three goals from midfielders, and in the process clinched their passage to the knockout stages of the 2011 Women's World Cup. Heather O'Reilly staked the U.S. to an early lead, and substitute Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd added goals in the second half.
As for forwards Abby Wambach and Amy Rodriguez, they were unable to join in on the fun. Both players squandered several clear chances, with Wambach looking especially snakebit. Fortunately for the U.S., that proved to be a mere footnote on a day when, save for a brief spell in the first half, it largely dominated.
Colombia started the match with budding star midfielder Yoreli Rincon on the bench, and the same was true for central midfield partner Daniela Montoya. Given such heavy midfield turnover, as well as Las Cafeteras relative inexperience, the U.S. applied high pressure from the outset. This resulted in several opportunities to score for Wambach and Rodriguez. But Lori Lindsey was clearly enjoying her first start of this World Cup, as her energy and clever passes helped put the U.S. on the offensive.
The approach eventually paid off in the 12th minute. A poor touch from Rincon's replacement, Liana Salazar, was pounced on by O'Reilly, who unleashed a rocket past Colombia goalkeeper Sandra Sepulveda. O'Reilly and her teammates celebrated with a salute to the U.S. servicemen and women who attended Thursday's open practice.
The U.S. attempted to pad its lead, but the second goal proved elusive. Wambach headed wide after being set up by O'Reilly in the 30th minute. Then a combination of some inconsistent service into the box, as well as some settled nerves on the part of Colombia, led to the rest of the first half being played out on more level terms.
It took an inspired substitution at halftime by U.S. manager Pia Sundhage to help the Americans get the insurance goal they needed. Megan Rapinoe was brought on for Rodriguez, with Cheney moving up top and Rapinoe setting up shop on the left side of midfield. The spark provided was near instantaneous. A U.S. throw-in in the 50th minute was shielded well by Cheney, and her deft through ball found Rapinoe, who took a touch centrally before unleashing a cannon that left Sepulveda with no chance.
With the pressure off, the U.S. added to its advantage seven minutes later, although there was more than a bit of good fortune to it. Carli Lloyd collected the ball in the attacking third, avoided a defender and fired another bullet that Sepulveda should have saved but only succeeded in palming into her own net.
The only drama that was left was to determine if Wambach could find a way to get on the score sheet. Alas, it wasn't to be. Her final chance in the 80th minute summed up her day. A through ball left Wambach in a race with Sepulveda, and the goalkeeper's clearance deflected off Wambach only to carom off the post.
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Sensing that it wasn't her day, Wambach could only laugh at her inability to find the net. But humor aside, the U.S. will clearly need its star striker to start converting. Chances now figure to become much harder to come by, beginning with Wednesday's group finale against Sweden, a game the U.S. needs only to draw to finish atop Group C.
But for now, the Americans will be content with the fact their goal of reaching the knockout stages has now been achieved.
Player ratings (1-10, 10 = best)
G Hope Solo, 6: Relatively untroubled, but sprinted off her line well to snuff out some Colombian attacks. Played it safe on an Orianica Velasquez shot in the 54th minute, touching away a drive that looked to be going wide.
D Amy Le Peilbet, 4: Showed a bit better defensively than against North Korea, but still struggled mightily with her touch and distribution. She's done little to lock down a position that is there for the taking.
D Rachel Buehler, 5.5: Beaten for pace a few times, and her distribution was still a bit erratic, but did show some improvement in her overall defending.
D Christie Rampone, 6.5: Used her pace well to cover for Buehler, and was a calming presence in the back, although her distribution was a tad imprecise.
D Ali Krieger, 6.5: Was solid defensively once again, although not quite as sharp with her passing as she was against North Korea. Did have one stellar run in the second half that resulted in a cross that Wambach couldn't put away.
M Lauren Cheney, 7: Actually played a more complete game than against North Korea, when she scored. Still gives the ball away a bit too often, but was a threat running with the ball at her feet. She also did all of the heavy lifting on Rapinoe's goal by shielding the ball well and providing an incisive pass. Has more than repaid Sundhage's faith.
M Lori Lindsey, 6.5: Started out on fire, winning countless balls in the opposition half, and was slick with her distribution. Cooled off a bit as the game went on.
M Carli Lloyd, 7: Much more consistent with her distribution, although she got caught in possession a few times. Showed off her powerful shot on her goal, although in truth it should have been saved. Still, given how dependent the U.S. is on Lloyd, the performance was a good sign.
M Heather O'Reilly, 7: Provided tireless work on the right flank on both sides of the ball, which led to her wonder strike in the 12th minute. Only complaint was that her ability to connect with teammates wasn't as sharp as it normally is.
F Abby Wambach, 4.5: No complaints about her movement or work rate, but she has to start putting some chances away. Her failure to put her header on target in the 30th was among several chances she couldn't convert.
F Amy Rodriguez, 4: Like her strike partner, took up good positions but was wasteful with her finishing. Didn't connect that well with her teammates either, and she can have few complaints about getting pulled at halftime.
M Megan Rapinoe, 7: Looked every bit like a player with something to prove. Took her goal with aplomb, and provided a solid wide presence on the left wing.
D Stephanie Cox, 5.5: Helped her standing by simply avoiding mistakes, although she did get caught in possession once. That said, with Colombia trying to attack mostly up the middle, Cox was rarely tested.
M Tobin Heath, 6: Looked bright and energetic in her time out on the right wing. Her touches were sharp, as were her passes.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2011 Women's World Cup
2011 champion: Japan
Topics: Women's World Cup