It was not very convincing, but American fans are getting used to not very convincing. The United States advanced to the World Cup quarterfinals with a 2–0 victory over 10-woman Colombia on Monday after wearing down another inferior opponent despite another mixed-bag first-half team performance and another mediocre showing from star striker Abby Wambach.
The second-ranked Americans will go on to face China for the first time at a World Cup since the 1999 final, when Brandi Chastain buried the penalty kick that clinched the U.S. its last title.
The U.S. will have to beat the Chinese women without their best player of this tournament, Megan Rapinoe, who will have to sit out the next game after earning her second yellow card of the World Cup. Lauren Holiday, another star American midfield performer in Canada, will also miss out on the next game after receiving her second yellow card of the event on a controversial first-half call.
Even with the two absent midfielders, the United States will be overwhelming favorites against No. 16 China in the next round, with ESPN’s advanced analytics giving them an 88 percent chance to advance. That seems like a reasonable prediction considering the United States hasn’t dropped a match against China in 24 straight games, a streak running back to 2003.
Part of the reason the Americans are so favored is their depth, and coach Jill Ellis has already said that 32-cap midfielder Morgan Brian will replace Holiday. Meanwhile, dangerous, young attacking players Sydney Leroux and Christen Press will both be available to play for Rapinoe should America choose to emphasize a pressing style with an extra forward.
But beating Colombia is not what the U.S. came to this tournament to do—it came to win the entire thing. And despite an impressive defensive run of not having conceded in more than 330 minutes, if and when the United States reach the last four, it will need some more offense.
Looking ahead, past China lies either the top-ranked team in the world and one of the most imposing teams at this World Cup in Germany, or the third-ranked team in the world and one of the teams with the most flair at this tournament in France. Les Bleues have scored nine goals thus far, while the Germans have scored 19 goals. As a reminder, the U.S. has only scored six goals at this entire event. That includes a 0–0 draw with Sweden, a team the Germans demolished 4–1 in their last 16 matchup.
The American offensive woes extended throughout a tough first half in its own round of 16 match, in which upstart Colombia played like the world-beaters it entered claiming to be. The U.S. did have three great early opportunities to score, but second-string Colombian goalkeeper Catalina Perez came up with three huge saves. The first one, a lunging save of a distant blast from the very-fun-to-watch Tobin Heath, should have resulted in a rebound goal, but Wambach's subsequent shot into the back of the net was disallowed after she was caught for an obvious offside.
Wambach’s struggles continued in the second half when, in the 49th minute, she fired a left-footed penalty kick well wide of the mark. Fortunately for the United States, that penalty was set up by an illegal sliding challenge of Alex Morgan in a one-on-one situation—set up by a beautiful long ball from Rapinoe—that Perez sent off.
The Americans were able to play almost the entire second half 11 versus 10, and Colombia, already heavy underdogs, were forced to rely on third-string keeper Stefany Castaño. Despite the team's first-half ineffectualness, America’s well-conditioned attack made it look easy against the 21-year-old from Bogotá, as Ali Krieger slipped in a pass behind the Colombian defense just four minutes after Wambach’s miss, and Morgan calmly finished for her third-ever World Cup goal and first as a starter.*
From there, Rapinoe almost earned another penalty—slaloming through the Colombian penalty area and getting taken down by two defenders—before getting a deserved penalty call minutes later on a hard tackle deep in the area. This time Rapinoe’s efforts were not wasted, and Carli Lloyd buried the penalty with ease.
Despite the win and another impressive defensive display that kept star goalkeeper Hope Solo from having to do much work at all, the United States have still yet to look like the best team in this tournament, never mind like a team that should reach the final in Vancouver one day after Independence Day.
As mentioned, a big part of that has been Wambach’s disappointing performances, which she has at times blamed on the fact that the Cup is being played on turf—a disappointing problem indeed, for which it’s impossible not to impute sexism by FIFA, but one that the better players at this tournament have managed without complaint.
After the game, Wambach seemed again to subtly nod to this poor excuse when discussing why the Americans haven’t been scoring. “Goals don’t come easy for many different reasons so you have to take the goals where you can get them,” she said on Fox Sports.
It might be time to start playing young guns Leroux and Press together—as the team did in its opening 3–1 victory over surprise quarterfinalists Australia—and maybe leave the nation’s 35-year-old all-time-leading scorer to come off the bench if the Americans want to find their offensive spark before it’s too late.
Correction, 2:15 p.m., June 23, 2015: This post originally misstated that a Tobin Heath pass set up Alex Morgan's goal.