U.S. still looking for solutions to offense ahead of quarterfinal tilt vs. China PR

BY Laura Vecsey • June 24, 2015

OTTAWA, ONTARIO -- With an off-kilter offense, the United States women’s soccer team is so focused on trying to figure out what’s wrong, they don’t see their opponent in their quarterfinal showdown at the World Cup (Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET, FOX) as much more than the next opportunity to solve their own problems.

China? You mean the great opponent from the 1999 World Cup that the U.S. women beat on penalty kicks at the jam-packed Rose Bowl as millions watched live on TV?

The U.S. has bigger fish to fry, or so it seems, than a trip down memory lane -- even though it has been 16 years since the two teams have met on this stage.

“They’re very good defensively. They get numbers behind the ball. They’re very savvy and very compact so it will be tough to break them down,’’ U.S. veteran Lori Chalupny said. “They’re a good team, but we feel good about where we’re at.’’

Sixteen years is a long time to have any real bearing on Friday’s events at Lansdowne Stadium. While the U.S. entered this World Cup with the firm expectation of winning for the first time since 1999, China are another story. Over the past decade, their soccer program became a national joke as a fast-changing economy and one-child social policies made soccer a low priority for families and the government.

Things have started to turn around, however, and more suddenly than expected. China were not necessarily expected to advance out of group play. However, a young and energetic roster with an average age of 23 years old has shown great organization and drive. That was apparent from the opener against Canada, in which China held the host country to a scoreless draw until a very late-game penalty was called against China that allowed Christine Sinclair to salvage Canada’s dignity and hope.

Not only have China now advanced to the quarterfinals, they earned praise from Enow Ngachu, the coach of Cameroon, which China defeated 1-0 in the Round of 16 in Edmonton.

“I think they have one of the best defenses in this tournament,’’ Ngachu said. “When they lose the ball, nearly all the Chinese players regroup themselves as fast as possible. You hardly find less than six players defending. If they keep on like that, they can create surprises.’’

But while the defense and discipline of the China side is notable, they are young and have already exceeded expectations in this World Cup. They could be inspired to play out of their minds -- and they have the legs and organization to do that. But they are not a complete team -- yet. They don’t have a dynamic attack.

In the win over Cameroon, coach Hao Wei inserted defender Wang Shanshan at the top of the China attack, since Wang is one of the most talented and versatile players on the young side. She scored the Steel Roses’ lone goal and was en route to at least one or two more goals, but was unable to finish on clear breakaways.

But even if Wang is not at the same level of proficiency as Sun Wen, the great Chinese striker who starred alongside Michelle Akers in the 1999 World Cup final, the U.S. is not sporting a killer offensive threat either. Abby Wambach, the all-time leading international goal-scorer, has shockingly missed scoring chances on headers and penalty kicks. Alex Morgan, fit again, has prompted coach Jill Ellis to scrap the Wambach-as-super-sub scenario and, instead, use Morgan and Wambach up top as starters the past two games.

Meanwhile, Christen Press -- expected to be a breakout player for the U.S. this World Cup -- has been yanked in and out of the lineup while Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez have been largely sidelined. The biggest offensive day the U.S. had was a 3-1 win over Australia, but they managed only a scoreless draw against Sweden, a 1-0 win over Nigeria and a 2-0 win over Colombia in the Round of 16, despite playing with a woman advantage for nearly the entire second half.

The U.S. attacking woes also extend into the midfield, where they will be missing two key players against China. Megan Rapinoe, who has created almost all of the U.S. offense this World Cup, and Lauren Holiday, who has won balls but failed to convert, were both tagged with second yellow cards in the game against Colombia and will sit out Friday.

Carli Lloyd will be back in action for the U.S., but the New Jersey native says she’s struggling to find answers for the flagging attack.

“Our best is yet to come,’’ Lloyd said. “We’ve got so many talented players on this team and I don’t think we’ve maxed it against anybody yet. In order to win this thing, in order to show what we’ve got, show the world what we’ve got, we’ve got to take some risks at some point.

“I know for me, I love to attack ... I need to get the ball. I need to run at players. I need to find a way to impact the game no matter how it’s going, whether it’s direct or not, that’s my focus.”

Given the talent, or at least the athleticism of the U.S. team, the mystery does seem to deepen with each game they play: What is the matter? Lloyd suggested, as former U.S. coach Tony DiCicco has also said, that the U.S. is not attacking high enough on defense. That lack of pressure up top has resulted in the midfield being too far back once the U.S. does win the ball.

“I don’t know if it’s fear of making mistakes,’’ Lloyd said. “We are a bit deeper defensively, so when we win the ball we’re in our defensive end, so it’s a long way to get to the goal versus different games, different eras, we would defend and press higher up the field, therefore winning it higher up on the field and need a couple passes to break through the goal.’’

Still, the team is getting by -- so far -- in spite of the troubles.

“At the end of the day, we all know we’re not playing out best football and we’re still finding ways to win,’’ Lloyd said. “I think that’s the history of this team, no matter if it’s good, bad, we still find a way to get it done. We’re just following the direction of our coaches, their coaching plan and everything they’re asking us. We’re working, we’re grinding and I have full confidence in this team.’’

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