U.S. has a chance in a defensive World Cup

U.S. has a chance in a defensive World Cup

Chalk it up to parity. Or great defending.

Or maybe, as Abby Wambach said, it's the artificial turf.

Whatever the reason, goals have been hard to come by at this women's World Cup.

Twenty-four of the tournament's 44 games — including five of eight in the round of 16 — have ended in shutouts. In group play there were two games in which neither team scored — the first time there have been two scoreless draws in the World Cup since 1999.

And that's a trend that favors the U.S., which has given up only one goal in four games and will enter Friday's quarterfinal with China working on a streak of 333 scoreless minutes.

"If you don't give up any goals," U.S. Coach Jill Ellis said, "you're going to have a chance."

But the Americans aren't the only ones pitching shutouts. Canada, behind goalkeeper Erin McLeod, has given up only one goal in four games. France has held three opponents scoreless.

Japan, the tournament's only unbeaten, untied team, was moments away from its third shutout when the Netherlands scored in stoppage time of a 2-1 loss in the final round of 16 game Tuesday.

Of the eight quarterfinalists, only three have given up more than two goals here. And that doesn't include Brazil, which didn't concede a score in group play but gave up one in its second-round game and was upset, 1-0, by Australia.

"Scoring goals," Wambach said "is not that easy."

She should know. The top scorer, male or female, in international soccer history, Wambach has only one goal in the tournament and her team has only six. But the deeper the U.S. goes in this World Cup and the more the emphasis turns to defense, the less the sputtering U.S. attack figures to matter — and the more the Americans can rely on goalkeeper Hope Solo and their brilliant back line.

Thanks to the play of Ali Krieger, Becky Sauerbrunn, Julie Johnston and Meghan Klingenberg in front of her, Solo has faced only nine shots in four games. She didn't make her first save Monday until the 84th minute. And she wasn't called on to make any stops at all in a group-play shutout of Sweden.

So despite two weeks of lackluster and often lifeless play, the tournament might be setting up nicely for the U.S. Even the schedule is working its favor, because after winning the tournament's so-called "Group of Depth," the U.S. is the only quarterfinalist who will play three consecutive games against teams ranked outside the top 15 in the FIFA world rankings.

Compare that to the challenge facing No. 1 Germany. After eliminating fifth-ranked Sweden in the round of 16, Germany faces No. 3 France in its quarterfinal. And if it wins that one, it will play the U.S.-China winner in the semifinals.

Schedules notwithstanding, the Germans still remain favorites to raise the Cup next month in Vancouver. The World Cup's most complete team, Germany has more goals (19) than four other quarterfinalists have scored combined. And it boasts the tournament's two leading scorers in Anja Mittag and Celia Sasic, while Nadine Angerer, the 2013 world player of the year, starts in goal.

In the lower half of the bracket, four top 10 teams are still alive. No. 8 Canada will play No. 6 England in one quarterfinal and fourth-ranked Japan, the defending World Cup champion, meets No. 10 Australia in the other.

Expect Japan to emerge from that foursome.

So though there have been surprises in the tournament, with the exception of Brazil's absence there are really no surprises among the eight quarterfinalists.

In many ways, then, the tournament is just beginning.

"From the early group games, you can see this is just an ultra-competitive — the most competitive — World Cup to date," Ellis said. "Certainly nothing is taken for granted."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: @kbaxter11

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