Alex Morgan said the U.S. has been too predictable. Christie Rampone said they’ve been too tight. And Abby Wambach blamed the turf.
But while the excuses ... uh, explanations ... for the Americans’ punchless performance in the women’s World Cup may differ, there is agreement within the team on one thing: It is going to get better.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll be peaking at the right moment,” midfielder Carli Lloyd said. “And that’s the most important thing.”
The right moment could come Monday night, when the U.S. plays Colombia in the round of 16. The stakes have increased since the forgiving three-game group-play stage. Now it’s win and go on or lose and go home.
So far in this tournament, the U.S. hasn’t given itself much margin for error.
Although the Americans won their group and entered the elimination stages unbeaten, they scored just four goals in doing so. Germany has two players — Anja Mittag and Celia Sasic — who have scored more than that by themselves.
Morgan’s return to the starting line after more than two months spent nursing a bone bruise to her left knee brought new energy and unpredictability to the U.S. attack in its final group-play game with Nigeria. And though that led to 14 shots and seven shots on goal — the most productive night of the tournament for the U.S. — it resulted in just one goal.
Rampone, playing in her fifth World Cup, said she expects the U.S. to thrive under the pressure of the elimination rounds.
“It’s just playing to our strengths,” she said. “I think you’ll see people really loosen up and go after it. We were playing too tight.
“We have such creativity and amazing players up top, the personalities will start shining through.”
U.S. Coach Jill Ellis isn’t buying that completely. With a roster that came into this tournament with a combined 25 years’ worth of World Cup experience, nerves shouldn’t be a problem. Finishing, however, has been.
“When a ball comes across the box and you’ve got to meet it with your head and you have that opportunity, I don’t think that’s tightness,” Ellis said. “It’s the execution piece at the critical moment in a pressure situation.
“The thing that gives me confidence is I’ve got the players that have a lot of experience being in the pressure cooker. And our chances are coming. From set pieces, from wide areas, from central areas. And now it’s that final piece.”
So for Ellis, the challenge is finding that final piece while keeping her players — especially the 35-year-old Wambach — fresh. If the U.S. beats Colombia, it will play China in the quarterfinals four days later. It’s unlikely Wambach will be able to play extensively in both games, so Ellis must decide when to rest her and who to start in her place.
The Americans also need to quickly answer the vexing questions about their attack, because despite their swagger, their experience and their unmatched star power, they are no longer intimidating opponents. During the group stage, the Australians said the U.S. was all talk and “a team stuck in the past.” Nigeria was equally unimpressed.
Now comes Colombia and midfielder Lady Andrade. She sucker-punched Wambach in the 2012 Olympics, earning a two-game suspension. And she’s been verbally jabbing the U.S. again here, predicting a Colombian upset.
It wouldn’t be the first of the tournament for the South Americans, who stunned third-ranked France, 2-0, in group play.
The good news for the U.S., then, is the players say they can get better. The bad news is they may be running out of time to make that happen.
“We want to continue to grow,” said Wambach, who earlier in the tournament said the U.S. may have lost as many as three goals to the artificial turf. “We’re still a work in progress. I don’t want to be peaking until we’re standing on that top podium at the end of the tournament. That is the moment when everything comes together, when everything fits.
“We got real close four years ago but ... something was missing. What that is, I can’t tell you. But hopefully I can tell you in a couple of weeks.”