EDMONTON, Alberta -- It was the late basketball coach Jim Valvano who, when it came to tournament play, coined the term "survive and advance." The U.S. women's national team seems to be adopting that philosophy, as it underwhelmed once again in beating Colombia 2-0 in a Women's World Cup Round-of-16 match.
Alex Morgan got the all-important first goal and created the play that led to Colombia goalkeeper Catalina Perez's getting sent off, which enabled the U.S. to play almost the entire second half 11-versus-10. Carli Lloyd converted a penalty kick for the second goal.
But like many of the U.S. performances in this Women's World Cup, this game was no oil painting. The U.S. defense was steady but foul prone as it tried to contain the one-on-one play of Las Cafeteras. This tendency proved costly, as both Lauren Holiday and Megan Rapinoe picked up their second yellow cards of the tournament, which means they will miss the quarterfinal against China.
In terms of the attack, the early exchanges looked promising, with Tobin Heath forcing a smart save from Perez in the third minute. Wambach appeared to prod the ball home but was correctly ruled offside.
At that point, the Americans reverted to some bad habits. The improved midfield play shown against Nigeria was nowhere to be found. The tempo was back to that seen during the group stage against Sweden -- slow and cumbersome with little combination play. Credit must be given to Colombia, whose swarming defense ensured it always had numbers around the ball in dangerous areas. All the more reason to move the ball quickly, however.
The Americans should be commended for picking up their play in the second half and making the plays they needed to make, including the game's turning point in the 47th minute. Rapinoe sprang Morgan on a clear breakaway, only to be upended by Perez. Referee Stephanie Frappart immediately pointed to the spot and showed Perez a red card. Replays indicated the call to be correct, but it was a tough end for Perez, who had made some impressive saves in the first half.
Incredibly, Wambach -- the all-time leading scorer in the women's game -- contrived to put the ensuing penalty wide and breath the kind of life into the opponent that can be dangerous. Morgan eased those fears by beating substitute goalkeeper Stefany Castaño to the near post in the 53rd minute. Lloyd then made the game safe in the 66th minute by converting another penalty after Rapinoe had been fouled by Angela Clavijo.
As a result, the U.S. advances to the quarterfinals without having really impressed in the tournament. The Americans are still alive and face an utterly winnable game against China, a team they are unbeaten against in 24 consecutive matches. The big question is: Can the U.S. find its form before meeting either Germany or France, both of whom have impressed of late, in the semifinals? Suffice it to say, that remains a huge concern.
It will be interesting to see what steps manager Jill Ellis takes in replacing Holiday and Rapinoe. Shannon Boxx is one potential Holiday replacement in the center of midfield, and perhaps her previous chemistry with Lloyd will ramp up the U.S. attack. That said, it was interesting to see Ellis turn to Morgan Brian in a central role late in the match.
Rapinoe will be far tougher to replace. The Americans have leaned heavily on the midfielder for creativity, and even though her form has dipped at times, she has tended to deliver when it mattered most. Simply put, there is no other player like her at the moment.
For now, the U.S. can at least be content that it survived to play another game.
Player ratings (0-10):
G Hope Solo, 6: She was rarely troubled and only needed to make the most basic of saves.
D Meghan Klingenberg, 6: She was patient on defense, though she tended to stay home on this day.
D Becky Sauerbrunn, 6.5: She had a few uncharacteristic giveaways in her own half but was sharp defensively, including a late tackle to thwart a run from Lady Andrade.
D Julie Johnston, 7: She provided a physical presence when needed and stepped up to prevent some Colombian attacks.
D Ali Krieger, 5.5: She wasn't sharp with her distribution in the first half but made the pass that counted and released Morgan for the U.S. opener.
M Megan Rapinoe, 6.5: She struggled to link up with her passing and was a foul machine defensively, which led to a booking for persistent infringement. She made some critical plays though, including releasing Morgan and winning the Americans' second penalty.
M Lauren Holiday, 6: She connected on her passes well but didn't need to commit the foul that led to her booking. Now she'll watch the quarterfinal from the bench. That said, she was one of the few U.S. players who looked aggressive.
M Carli Lloyd, 5: She continued to look out of sorts with the ball at her feet. Her saving grace was she continued to provide a defensive presence in midfield, and she took her penalty well.
M Tobin Heath, 4: Her touch was off, and she continually dribbled into trouble when she did corral the ball.
F Abby Wambach, 5: She did what she could with her holdup play and had one drive well saved by Perez. She had one apparent goal rightly disallowed for offside. Her penalty miss, however, was shocking.
F Alex Morgan, 7: She had difficultly linking up in the first half but was dangerous around the net, where she won the penalty and scored the critical first goal.
M Morgan Brian, 6: She kept the U.S. midfield ticking over. Is she the Holiday replacement?
F Christen Press, 5: She squandered one promising attack with a poor ball into space. Given Heath's struggles, don't be surprised to see Press back in the lineup.
D Lori Chalupny, NR: She came on for a late spell at left back.