Even for the mighty United States women’s soccer team, conquerer of the world last summer and three-time defending Olympic champions, all games are not equal. The hashtag #WinTheGroup appeared to be the mantra of choice heading into the final group match with Colombia, but with a berth in the quarterfinals long since secure, there was no way the game was going to take on the same urgency as the first two.
Add the fact that the USWNT had to travel to the jungle (literally) and deal with oppressive conditions in Manaus on just two days rest as well as some niggling injuries that they desperately wanted to have healed prior to Friday’s quarterfinals, and you get a rare somewhat less than spirited performance that ended in a 2-2 draw, the first time since the first group stage match in 2008 (a 2-0 loss to Norway) that the United States did not win a game at the Olympics.
Should U.S. fans be concerned? Probably not. Yes, the final scoreline is a bit embarrassing against a team that looked overmatched and somewhat disinterested for the first half of their Olympic experience, thanks in part to turmoil in their own federation and key injuries. But they came to life in the second half against New Zealand, certainly had nothing to lose Tuesday and played that way, able to leave Brazil with some consolation and hopefully motivation (and maybe some support at home?) to make an impact three years from now in France.
Here's the starting lineup! ⚽️ pic.twitter.com/JW1vQMHkye
— U.S. Olympic Team (@TeamUSA) August 9, 2016
Even so, the U.S. dominated the match almost completely other than in the final score. They didn’t create as many chances as they probably would have liked, but they did make a few for themselves and gave up virtually none, as the expected goal count shows. They did commit a couple silly fouls that led to Catalina Usme’s goals, but let’s be honest, they both (certainly the first one) should have been saved.
Sometimes soccer can be a strange game, on another night, this would be a comfortable 3-0 USWNT victory and we’d be talking about how no one else in the world stood a chance to beat them. But this one ended 2-2 and people are worried that someone like Sweden could give them problems in the quarterfinals (I personally don’t think so).
A couple #USWNT stats…
Comp passes in attack 3rd:
USA 107, COL 13
— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) August 10, 2016
In the end, the U.S. can be thankful they got an unlucky night like this out of the way as they head into the rounds where you don’t get second chances. Anything can happen going forward, but I don’t think there’s much more cause for concern than there was before Tuesday. #WinTheGroup, right? Mission accomplished, onto the next one.
What else did we learn in the 2-2 draw with Colombia?
1) About Hope Solo
If there were a women’s soccer Hall of Fame, Hope Solo would surely be in it whenever she was eligible. She’s long since cemented her place as perhaps the world’s top goalkeeper with her play in the last decade. But her form in the NWSL and sometimes the USWNT is just not as great as it once was in the last year or so, with occasional mistakes – particularly on crosses or set pieces.
Does that mean she’s a liability? Not necessarily, she certainly played well against France, and you’d still probably take her over any other goalkeeper in this competition. As we’ve been saying for a while, her biggest competition probably comes from within: Alyssa Naeher, Ashlyn Harris, and even Nicole Barnhart have had better NWSL seasons than Solo.
Hope Solo to NBC: "I'm gonna choose to have a short-term memory"
— Alexander Abnos (@AnAbnos) August 10, 2016
But she’s made mistakes before and come through in subsequent matches to lead the U.S. to glory, most notably in the 2008 Olympics. In the first major tournament match since the 2007 World Cup semifinal fiasco that saw Solo benched for Briana Scurry, Solo made a poor error in judgment that led to a Norway goal just 75 seconds into the game, which Norway went on to win 2-0 (interestingly, Barnhart was her backup in 2008). Until Tuesday, though, the U.S. – all with Solo – had won every match it had played in the Olympics since, including the rest of 2008, which finished with 120 minutes of shutout goalkeeping in a 1-0 win over Brazil in the gold medal match. So we shall see.
— Ray Curren (@rjcurren) August 10, 2016
2) Finding the right lineup
In reality, a draw like this might make Jill Ellis’ decisions easier when it comes to making her knockout stage lineup. Christen Press did not excel in her first start at the Olympics, perhaps her worst moment coming when Mallory Pugh set her up for a breakaway, but she tried to play it back to her when Pugh was in an offside position. That doesn’t mean she won’t be valuable if Ellis needs firepower late in a game, but there’s likely little chance she’ll unseat any of the previous starters.
Elsewhere, Lindsey Horan had a decent game, but didn’t really stand out in a discernible way that would give her an edge over Allie Long in that spot come Friday. So, you’ll probably get what you got against New Zealand and France for the quarterfinals, with the toughest decision choosing two of Pugh, Crystal Dunn, and Tobin Heath (assuming they’re all healthy) for the wings. I’d lean toward Pugh and Heath.
3) About those injuries
While Pugh returned for 60 minutes and looked fine (although she had a little limp after scoring a nice goal), Julie Johnston sat the entire match again, meaning if she does play Friday, it will be her first action in nine days with no chance to test herself live before stepping into the fire. Under normal (friendly) circumstances, Ellis probably would have given her a bit of a run Tuesday, but with only three subs, it was difficult. Johnston was especially missed on offensive set pieces, where the USWNT was not its usual dangerous self.
Elsewhere, Megan Rapinoe went her 30 minutes and looked pretty rusty. With one of Heath, Dunn, or Pugh already not starting, it’s hard to see her playing a key role in a knockout stage match at her level of match fitness. But, like Press, it’s certainly a nice weapon to have if the U.S. needed a goal late or as a late, late sub. That’s probably it, though, unless we see another injury (which could happen).
— U.S. Soccer WNT (@ussoccer_wnt) August 9, 2016
4) Sellout crowds
Yeah, they were mostly there to see Brazil (OK, almost all there to see Brazil), but you got a little taste of what could be if we were to get a semifinal match between the United States and the hosts, and it would be awesome. The fates have a tendency to keep these things from us, and if there’s one lesson the U.S. can (and probably will) take out of Tuesday’s match is that anything can happen and nothing is guaranteed.
— Kate Markgraf (@katemarkgraf) August 10, 2016
Brazil will have to get through Australia, while the U.S. will have to do the same with Sweden, but they indeed seem to be on a collision course for next Tuesday in Rio.
5) Mallory Pugh to the NWSL soon?
Pugh won’t play college soccer this fall because she’s headed to the U-20 World Cup in Papua New Guinea, where teams could barely defend her (until she got injured) in 2014 as a 16-year-old, so good luck to them this time around. She’s deferred enrollment to UCLA and is slated to play there now in 2017 as a freshman and therefore hypothetically eligible for the 2021 (?!?) NWSL Draft.
A college education is a wonderful thing, as is the college experience and college soccer, where there are many wonderful players. But it seems a tad silly for a starter on the national team and potentially one of the world’s best players (if she’s not already) to not be playing professionally. But she is entitled to do whatever she wants, of course, and Kadeisha Buchanan’s situation was not totally dissimilar and she will complete her fourth year of college soccer at West Virginia before likely being the first pick in the NWSL Draft this winter. But 2021 seems so far away, especially with a sizable national team contract that could potentially be hers.
— espnW (@espnW) August 9, 2016