Can US afford to rest vs. Colombia?
With the toughest hurdle of the group stage now behind it after an opening 4-2 victory against France, the US women’s national team faces a tricky match on Saturday against an underdog Colombian side that will leave US coach Pia Sundhage with some decisions to make.
Will Sundhage keep her same starting unit together and look to build some momentum with that group? Or does she take the tight Olympic schedule into consideration and rest some players ahead of a tough group stage finale against North Korea?
There is a good chance Sundhage will look to trot out her strongest possible lineup, with the hope of establishing an early lead before sitting some key players, like Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan, ahead of Tuesday’s match against North Korea.
The US will be without midfielder Shannon Boxx, who is sidelined by a hamstring injury. She suffered the injury against France, though she has not been ruled out for the remainder of the tournament. Carli Lloyd did an outstanding job as Boxx’s replacement, scoring the eventual game-winning goal against France. Lloyd also scored against Colombia in last year’s World Cup.
Colombia opened Olympic play with a disappointing 2-0 loss to the North Koreans, a result overshadowed by the fiasco caused when Olympic organizers inadvertently mixed up North Korean and South Korean flags, leading to an hour-long delay before that match. The Colombians aren’t likely to face that kind of distraction on Saturday in Glasgow, but they do face the daunting task of trying to slow down an American attack that dismantled France with four unanswered goals in Wednesday’s victory.
As the 28th-ranked team in the world, the Colombians are a young, technical side that plays a possession style of soccer similar to teams like Japan and France. But unlike those world powers, Colombia doesn’t boast the world class forwards or star midfielders to pose a major threat against the US.
The Americans handled Colombia easily in the 2011 World Cup, cruising to a 3-0 victory. The US dominated that match by applying heavy pressure on the Colombian midfield, something made easier by the lack of dangerous Colombian threats up top.
The Colombian team has its share of American ties, including American-born players Nataly Arias, Melissa Ortiz and Ana Montoya. The squad also boasts several American college soccer players, including Kansas Jayhawks midfielder Liana Salazar, University of Toledo defender Natalia Gaitan, University of Indiana striker Orianica Velasquez and Austin Peay State University sisters Tatiana and Natalia Ariza.
Of that group, Arias, Gaitan, Salazar and Velasquez played against the US at the World Cup, and all but Arias started in Colombia’s loss to North Korea (Arias came on as a second half substitute).
Arias and Gaitan figure to start in a Colombian defense that will be hard-pressed to contain American forwards Wambach and Morgan, who combined for three goals against the French. If Arias starts, she will likely be matched up against speedy American winger Tobin Heath, who enjoyed a strong match against France and is a safe bet to stay in the starting lineup.
Where Sundhage could be tempted to make a change or two is in the US defense. The American back line struggled against France, with Rachel Buehler having a tough time against the dangerous French forwards. Colombia won’t provide nearly the same challenge, but that may not stop Sundhage from giving 27-year-old defender Becky Sauerbrunn a start alongside Christie Rampone in the heart of the American defense.
Another option we could see on Saturday is veteran winger Heather O’Reilly, who didn’t play against France. A veteran of the 2004 and 2008 gold medal-winning US teams, O’Reilly has lost her starting job to the winger tandem of Rapinoe and Heath, but she should have a chance to feature against the Colombians, though likely in a reserve role.
Sundhage isn’t likely to experiment too much with her starting lineup, but as good as the US offense is looking, Saturday’s match could turn into a blowout. That would give the team a chance to take a look at some bench options like O’Reilly, Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux.
Sundhage will want to see as many reserves as she can against Colombia. As past tournaments would suggest, she may not have that same luxury when the USA rounds out group play against a tough North Korea side. Colombia is by far the weakest opponent the Americans will face in these Olympics. While the Americans must be careful not to overlook their South American opponents, they are fully aware that more difficult challenges lie ahead.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FOXSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the US National Team.