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All Eyes On Midfield As United States Heads To Quarters Against China

OTTAWA, Ontario -- It hardly seems possible that nearly 16 years have passed since the United States defeated China on penalties in the 1999 Women's World Cup final. That was the day that Kristine Lilly cleared Fan Yunjie's header off the line, Briana Scurry saved a penalty from Liu Ying in the shootout, and Brandi Chastain converted the winner and then embarked on her iconic celebration.

But time has indeed marched on, and while the U.S. women and China have met many times since then, only one of those meetings has taken place in a major tournament, a 1-1 tie during the group stage of the 2000 Olympics. Now the two sides are poised to meet again in the quarterfinals of the 2015 Women's World Cup.

What's on the line?

The U.S. women have never failed to reach the semifinals of a major tournament and are favored to get there again. But the Americans will also be keen to generate some fluidity in attack. The general consensus from the players is "we have time," but with a potential semifinal matchup against either Germany or France looming, the time is now to find some consistency and sharpness in the attacking half.

"[The players] understand that we need to continue to raise our level with each round," U.S. manager Jill Ellis said at Thursday's news conference. "It's not a matter of being satisfied. These are players that love challenges. The coaches in here have high expectations, but it's about getting them to that point. We're capable of a lot more, and that's the expectation on ourselves."

After failing to qualify for the 2011 Women's World Cup, China has experienced something of a revival in this tournament. Wang Shanshan, who scored the game winner in the round-of-16 triumph over Cameroon, told the New York Times that the team's goal had already been reached. But the Steel Roses would love nothing better than to knock off one of the tournament favorites and reach the semifinals of a major tournament for the first time since that epic run back in 1999.

"The team is making steady progress," China manager Hao Wei said. "Of course there is still room for improvement, big room."

Style and tactics

Hao will send out his team in a 4-2-3-1, with a heavy emphasis on defensive organization. In fact, the back four play so narrow and compact as to practically invite teams to attack the flanks. Against Cameroon, China looked susceptible to high pressure, with its back line ceding possession too easily. In attack, China leans more on technique than physicality. The Steel Roses' offense is initiated by holding midfielders Ren Guixin and Tan Ruyin, who often look to wingers Han Peng and Wang Lisi to use their one-on-one abilities, especially on the counter. Han sustained a head wound against Cameroon that required six stitches to close, but she should be available.

Hao said, "[Han] is actively preparing for tomorrow's match, and as coach, I think I should again give her the chance to show her abilities."

While the U.S. women turned to a 4-2-3-1 late in the 2-0 victory over Colombia, the absence of suspended midfielders Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday makes it almost certain that Ellis will stick with the 4-4-2 the United States has used in every game thus far.

"It's not about changing a shape," said Ellis when asked if she contemplated using a 4-3-3 against China. "A lineup is just an alignment of players. It's how you play within any shape. It's really about how mobile we are, it's really about what we commit to in terms of how we want to play, and it's about selecting the right tools that we think will be beneficial in this match."

The big question is: Can central midfielders Carli Lloyd and Morgan Brian -- the likely replacement for Holiday -- generate some offense out of the center of midfield?

"Carli wants to get forward, and we want to get her forward," Ellis said. "It's having that balance defensively but also allowing them to express themselves."

Players to watch

For China: Wang Fei, Li Dongna, Wang Lisi

Goalkeeper Wang Fei is as a steady, calming presence in China's goal who is solid with her handling and commands her box well. Li is at the heart of a stingy China defense that has conceded just three goals in four games, and is also a threat on set pieces. It was her reception from a corner kick and subsequent pass that led to a goal from Wang Shanshan against Cameroon. Wang Lisi has been one of the team's prime creators on the right wing, and has scored two of China's four goals in the tournament.

For the United States: Brian, Lloyd, Tobin Heath

Brian is set to make her second start of this Women's World Cup, but this time she'll be stationed in her more customary slot in the center of midfield. With Holiday suspended, it will likely be up to Lloyd -- who is set to earn her 200th cap on Friday -- to get forward more. She has been very quiet so far in the tournament, but she'll need to take charge and be more incisive with the ball. Heath has been lackluster in two previous starts, but with Rapinoe out, she'll need to step up her game and provide some creativity in the U.S. midfield. Given China's tendency to give up space on the flanks, there might be more room for Heath to operate than in previous matches.

What we can expect

China will have had two more days of rest than the Americans, but look for the Steel Roses to sit in and adopt a defend-and-counter strategy. Defensively, China is adept at swarming the ball and making it difficult for opponents to play through the middle. It's a team that doesn't have a ton of flair offensively, so countering allows China's difference-makers -- such as forward Wang Shanshan and wide midfielders Wang Lisi and Han Peng -- to have more room to maneuver. That said, it will take something spectacular to break through against a U.S. defense that hasn't conceded a goal in 333 minutes.

Given China's approach, the U.S. women should have most of the possession. But the Americans have struggled all tournament long to break down compact defenses, and the absence of Rapinoe and Holiday will make this more difficult. Therefore the United States must play at a high tempo and try to pull China's disciplined defense out of shape. If the Americans can do that, then the game will open up and the goals could begin to flow.

Set pieces remain one of the prime attacking routes for the Americans, and their strength in the air could be telling.

Intangibles

Monday's round-of-16 match in Edmonton against Colombia marked the first time the United States hadn't enjoyed overwhelming fan support. With Ottawa lying in closer proximity to the U.S. border, the Americans should once again feel the energy of what will be a sellout crowd.

Having reached the quarterfinals, everything China gets from here on out will be a bonus, so there will be zero pressure on Hao and his charges. A 1-1 tie against the U.S. women back in December means there will be little fear, either. The United States has looked tentative at times in this tournament, but this is a team with immense experience and a long history of coming through in pressure situations.

There is a sense that China is trying to win for the whole country, but captain Wu Haiyan downplayed that thought.

"If we have a victory, it's a victory for us," she said. "We didn't think too much about the entire country. As players we just want to win the game."

Which team will win?

China will be tough to break down, but the way the U.S. defense is playing, one goal will likely be enough. Look for the Americans to prevail 1-0 in regulation.