Preview: USWNT prepare to face Colombia

rapinoe

By TOM SLATER

It’s no longer about advancing for the United States Women’s National Team in the 2016 Summer Olympics. Courtesy of an exciting 1-0 victory over France Saturday and New Zealand’s victory over Colombia, the United States advanced to the next round and should win the group outright.

Now, Tuesday’s match against Colombia is a chance for the Americans to get healthy again before the knockout stage begins over the weekend.

The Americans need at least three players to be well enough to get through the knockout stages. Mallory Pugh (ankle) and Julie Johnston (groin) both sat out the win over France. And Megan Rapinoe hasn’t played a minute — not in the qualifying, not in the friendlies and not in the first round contests — in 2016.

All will be counted on if the Americans are to pull off winning consecutive championships in the Olympics and World Cup, something that’s never been done.

Pugh has been the wonder child of the United States team, earning a spot on the national side before graduating high school. Speed, vision and maturity beyond her years have been her hallmark as she has impressed most everyone while cementing a spot in the starting 11.

Pugh’s first game against New Zealand was a rough one. She had some flashes of brilliance but suffered an ankle injury early in the match. Pugh sat out a few minutes to get some treatment and returned for the rest of half. She subbed out for Crystal Dunn in the 61st minute. Don’t be surprised if Pugh doesn’t start against Colombia.

Johnston played the entire 90 minutes against New Zealand and was solid, teaming with Becky Sauerbrunn in a formidable central defense. She was held out by Jill Ellis as a precaution and Whitney Engen did a very nice job against France, a team not shy about attacking. Expect her back in the lineup.

Rapinoe is a mystery. Her recovery to knee surgery was faster than expected. But she hasn’t played in any competitive match since last fall. Her selection to the Olympic roster has been the most controversial. Coach Jill Ellis picked her for her “it factor” that she possesses, meaning her ability to serve from the flanks and hit a free kick with pace and accuracy. To be sure, Rapinoe’s one of the best. If she’s healthy. Which she may or may not be.  The thing is soccer is not like other sports. A specialist is only effective if they can do the other things on the field. It’s nice that Rapinoe can hit corners like no one else, but if she can’t run up and down the wing and if she can’t play defense, her “it factor” is negated.

The match against Colombia, especially if the outcome is hand, would be a wonderful time to get her ready for the knockout round. Or simply to see if she is ready.

Ellis might rest some of the other starters — possibly Tobin Heath. Or use the opportunity to get Ali Kreiger a start and rest either Kelley O’Hara or Meghan Klingenberg.

Colombia isn’t likely to offer much of a threat. The United States beat them 7-0 and 3-0 in a two-game set in April. And this isn’t the same team that fought the Americans hard at the World Cup last June. They have lost both group matches without scoring a goal and have a -5 goal difference. In two Olympics, Colombia has lost five matches without scoring a goal. Don’t look for anything different against the United States. Lady Andrade is the most famous Colombia player although she hasn’t had an effect on the result thus far.

No matter who gets on the field for the United States, they are deeper, more technic and possess a combination of defensive discipline and attacking flair that should carry the day.

The two teams play at Amazônia Arena in Manaus at 6 p.m. ET (NBCSN, NBC Universo).