Preview: USWNT faces China in Quarterfinals

PAUL SANCYA/ASSOCIATED PRESS

By MC Bousquette
USWNT Beat Writer

Last time the USWNT played China in the Women’s World Cup, Brandi Chastain wound up shirtless on the cover of Sports Illustrated after scoring the World Cup-winning goal in 1999.

But these are different times. The women’s sport has advanced tremendously on the international stage, and both sides have transformed along with it. China seeks revenge for the events of sixteen years ago, while the US angles for an offensive breakthrough to remain competitive in this World Cup.

The Competition:

China pose a threat not with an aggressive attack, but with a fortress-like defense. China held Cameroon scoreless to reach the quarterfinals, winning 1-0 to advance. This is particularly worrisome to the US who have been struggling for months with offensive execution. The technically meticulous Chinese side will do their utmost to deny US entry into the Chinese final third, and could well force the match into penalties.

Offensively, China’s centerback-turned-center forward Wang Shanshan is at the core of China’s efforts to get on the scoreboard. Shanshan had the lone goal against Cameroon, and has been the key playmaker for the squad this World Cup. China’s coach, Hao Wei, is back on the bench after missing the Round of 16 due to suspension. The skipper’s return should serve to provide the Chinese side with more confidence.

Projected Starting Lineup:

This time around, Coach Jill Ellis has a major lineup challenge on her hands. Due to their accrual of two yellow cards each, Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday must miss Friday’s match against China. This leaves Ellis with major adjustments to make, and much speculation that she will switch to a 4-3-3 formation, finally abandoning the 4-4-2.

It is difficult to believe Ellis will alter formations for the quarterfinals, however, given her continued visible adversity to change.

Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 9.16.05 AMForwards: Alex Morgan and Christen Press. After the sheer quantity of missed opportunities, as well as a whiffed penalty kick, Abby Wambach cannot possibly still be in the running to start the match. Wambach may enter late as an impact substitute but, between her poor form and the thin ice she is now on with FIFA following her accusatory comments about last match’s officials, it is almost unfathomable that Ellis will start her yet again. Morgan is visibly returning to speed and form, as was seen in her goal against Colombia.

While Amy Rodriguez is an absolutely viable choice to start, Ellis will likely feel that A-Rod hasn’t accrued enough minutes to take on a quarterfinals start. If Press is unexpectedly lackluster up top, expect her to move down to wing for Heath or O’Reilly, and A-Rod to go in up top. Ellis might try Sydney Leroux as well as a second-half substitute, though Leroux has been roundly ineffective this World Cup.

Midfield: Tobin Heath, Carli Lloyd, Morgan Brian, and Heather O’Reilly.The midfield without Rapinoe and Holiday is going to be difficult; the two of them have almost as many chances as the entire rest of the team combined. Much of the US’ offensive creativity stems from their technical abilities. Compensating for lost offensive firepower will be difficult; this is where one might foresee the most dramatic changes being made.

O’Reilly hasn’t played this World Cup, which generally would be a red flag for determining whether she will start on Friday. That said, she is just about the only wild card with which Ellis hasn’t experimented at midfield. And, given the midfield’s recent performances, the only way the US can go is up. O’Reilly and Heath can move the ball upfield effectively, creating chances to compensate for Holiday and Rapinoe’s absences. Brian will serve as the more defensive, utility midfielder, in an attempt to free Lloyd offensively.

Defense: Meghan Klingenberg, Julie Johnston, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Ali Krieger. At this point, the USWNT mantra is “the best offense is a good defense.” Which is maybe not how that is supposed to work, but luckily for the US, it has thus far. There is very little to complain about, if anything, regarding the US back line; it’s a virtual brick wall, with Johnston and Krieger serving as important playmakers as well. The only possibly concern stems from last match, when Krieger was subbed out for Lori Chalupny without explanation. Despite this, expect the back four to remain the same.

Goalkeeper: Hope Solo. Solo is playing at her absolute best, and continues to be vital to the US’ World Cup survival. There is no reason to doubt this trend will continue, especially against a Chinese side who are less offensively threatening than the hyper-physical Colombia. Solo now has the most caps of any goalkeeper in USWNT history.

The Bottom Line:

Anything could happen. The last time the USWNT and China played each other was December at the International Tournament of Brasilia. Both sides walked away with a lackluster draw. If this happens again, USWNT will be forced to chance it in penalty kicks. The US needs to seize the absence of Holiday and Rapinoe as an opportunity to succeed with different tactics and players; Friday’s match, while sure to be very difficult, poses significantly less of a challenge than will France or Germany should the US survive to the semifinals.

The United States take on China this Friday, June 26th in Ottawa at 7:30pm EST.