The styles and philosophies are very different, yet both the USA and China didn't overly impress while winning their games in the round of 16. The Americans scored twice and failed to convert a penalty kick in a 2-0 defeat of stubborn Colombia, and China absorbed a lot of pressure before prevailing against Cameroon, 1-0.
1. China can counter with pace and precision.
China played a tight, rather conservative game after taking an early lead over Cameroon, yet a more aggressive approach yielded a 2-2 tie with New Zealand in their last group game. A terrible handball call provided China a penalty kick that Lisi Wang converted for its first goal, and a courageous header by Wang Shenshen notched China’s second.
It’s unlikely either team wants to play an open game, yet China displayed against New Zealand an attacking prowess that could come into play. Against Cameroon, China retreated, with five midfielders shielding the back four, and though counterattacks were few they did feature pace and precision.
“They don’t give much away,” said U.S. head coach Jill Ellis during a press conference Thursday. “They’re a very organized team, probably one of the best-organized teams in the tournament. They make it very, very hard for you to break down.”
Centerbacks Li Dongna and Zhao Rong played solidly against Cameroon. They were aided greatly by the coordinated work of central mids Ren Giuxin and Tan Ruyin, who dropped quickly into passing lanes or dove into double-teams to win the ball. A tendency to give balls away after they’d won possession plagued the Chinese midfielders at times, yet they also used an unusual tactic to get downfield quickly.
2. Ellis: 'It’s not about changing the shape.'
Suspensions to Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday deprive the Americans of savvy, skill, flair and experience. Morgan Brian, who started against Colombia, is expected to take one of the slots and probably play in the middle. Tobin Heath has started the last two matches and showed enough improvement in the defeat of Colombia to keep her place. Alex Morgan is getting sharper and more dangerous as the tournament unfolds, yet by now she will have been well-scouted by China, which has a quick and smart back line and several tenacious midfielders.
As the most experienced central midfielder, this will be the most critical game of the tournament for Carli Lloyd. She must not only play her own game but help direct her teammates against an opponent that has shown tenacity and organization in three of its four matches.
‘At this point, it’s not about changing the shape,” said Ellis. “A lineup is just an alignment of players; it’s how you play within any shape. It’s really about now mobile we are, it’s really about how we commit to how we want to play. It’s about selecting the right tools that we think will be beneficial in this match.”
3. USA must vary its methods of attack.
Ellis didn’t commit as to whether Abby Wambach will keep her starting spot. The decision to start her against Colombia was based on certain factors and Ellis reiterated the strategy for China could be quite different.
“I look at what an opponent presents,” said Ellis. “Abby has some unique tools and the decision against Colombia is we felt on set pieces and defending blocks we had a very good chance in the air with her presence. I’ll look at China and what they present and what tools we have to be successful and break them down. That’s kind of how I approach it. I think she’d be ready to go for 90 minutes if asked.”
Against Cameroon, China conceded space on the flanks, relying on their quick-reacting defenders to clear the crosses. The Americans need not only get the ball wide but also vary their methods of attack: early balls, combination play, and dribbling to the endline to draw an additional defender can all work if there’s variety in those situations.
The players profess they are not distracted by sidebars such as media questioning of tactical and personnel decisions, or the comments of Wambach about playing surfaces and refereeing decisions that she has subsequently clarified. All of the Americans remember vividly the epic 1999 final in which the Americans beat China on penalty kicks at the Rose Bowl to win the title, but it is their own destiny that is yet to be decided.
“It’s just controlling what we can control,” said Sauerbrunn. ‘That’s not only the game plan that is given to us by our staff, that’s how we approach the game: the mentality of staying positive with one another.
“We know we haven’t played our best. We’re working through that, I think it’s gotten better each game. I think when it finally does click, we’re going to be very fearsome.”