No Maybes: US feared no more

EDMONTON, Alberta – There’s nothing particularly unusual about the United States and China meeting in the knockout stage of a Women’s World Cup.

They did so most famously in the 1999 World Cup final, which the Americans won in penalty kicks after a scoreless draw through extra time. Both programs are among those with the richest history in women’s soccer, even if China has never hoisted a major trophy.

China and the U.S. have played 51 times, second-most among any opponent for the United States. But both enter Friday’s quarterfinal at the 2015 Women’s World Cup far removed from those glory days of 1999. The U.S. hasn’t won the World Cup since then, coming closest in 2011, when it lost the final to Japan in penalty kicks.

China is back in the quarterfinals after a decline in talent saw the team miss out on the World Cup for the first time in 2011. Following their round-of-16 victory over Cameroon, China’s players and coaches said that they had already met their objective for the 2015 World Cup by getting to the quarterfinals, exemplifying just how different expectations are from World Cups past in the world’s most populous nation.

So the paths of China and the United States intersect on Friday at the crossroads of the evolving landscape of women’s soccer. Like a snowplow taming a wintery highway, parity has pushed through a once seemingly impenetrable road on which only a select few teams traveled every four years. Once idle women’s soccer programs are seeing the light.

While the Americans can claim three straight Olympic gold medals, they haven’t won the World Cup since that fabled day at the Rose Bowl in 1999. The World Cup has been elusive for the Americans as the landscape of women’s soccer has grown more competitive through the years.

As primary gatekeepers of the world’s elite clique, the United States faces more scrutiny than ever for long-stymied youth development and a lack of tactical and technical evolution. The American Way, as it’s often described – a persevering ability based largely around athleticism and a will to win – has been enough to keep the U.S. women near the top to date. They have never finished worse than third at a World Cup and they own four of the five all-time Olympic gold medals in the sport, taking the silver medal on the only other occasion.

But cracks in the foundation have been evident for a while. A miracle goal – credit to The American Way – saved the U.S. from a quarterfinal exit at the last World Cup. Abby Wambach headed in Megan Rapinoe’s version of a Hail Mary for the latest goal in World Cup history to send that match to penalty kicks, where the U.S. beat Brazil.

And even on Monday in the newly implemented Round of 16, the U.S. was largely held in check through 45 minutes by a Colombia team who four years ago made its debut on the world stage with a wide-eyed group of teenagers. The Americans looked a distant cry from dominant against Colombia before goalkeeper Catalina Perez was sent off, reducing Colombia to 10 players and hamstringing any realistic ability for the South Americans to win the game.

Colombia wasn’t the United States’ only opponent on Monday; evolution was (no, the referee wasn’t the other). The U.S. women’s program, surrounded by constant tactical scrutiny and pundits, finds itself somewhere in flux as it tries desperately to hold onto its once dominant form.

Players say their best is yet to come at this World Cup, and that they still haven’t reached their peak.

“It’s going to come,” U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd said after Monday’s win, in which she scored from on a penalty kick. “We keep telling everybody we haven’t peaked yet, and we still have a few more games to go for that.”

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It’s a refrain that echoed throughout Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium on Monday night, but there’s an increasing wonder of when – or if – that summit will be reached. Twice in the past four years, a very similarly structured U.S. team had little trouble with Colombia, winning 3-0 in the group stages of the 2011 World Cup and the 2012 Olympics.

Nigeria’s weak defense and suspect goalkeeping in the final group match were thought to be the point at which the U.S. offense could get going. But instead, the Americans grinded out a 1-0 victory against another team that ended the match with 10 players.

Friday’s opponent will be far more defensively organized.

China’s reemergence out of the abyss comes on the heels of newly implemented initiatives to get more girls in the country playing soccer. A lack of a youth system hampered development and created a lost generation for the program in the past decade.

Only about 6,000 to 7,000 females above age 12 are registered soccer players in a country of 1.4 billion people, according to the New York Times. A one-child policy in the country further complicates which sports parents push their children toward.

The legacy of China’s 1999 team – which came inches from winning the World Cup, only to be denied by a goal-line clearance by Kristine Lilly in extra time – lives on with this current, young China team, which features players who were mostly not even teenagers for those glory days. Long gone is FIFA co-player of the century Sun Wen, who pioneered that generation.

And while the ferocity of the USA-China rivalry may have quelled over the past decade – in large part due to China’s great decline – the opportunity to upset the U.S. isn’t lost on the current generation.

“At that time I was 10 years old and I woke up the next day and read the news that China lost to the United States,” said China defender Han Peng of the 1999 final. “I felt so disappointed. I thought to myself, if I were given the opportunity in the future, I will beat them. Now I am presented with this opportunity.”

This Chinese team hardly has the clout of the one that was a perennial contender in the 1990s, but much like their predecessors, these players base their play on team-first, defensively disciplined principles. China earned the nickname, “The Steel Roses,” in the 1990s for their fearless performances. An upset of the Americans on Friday, just over the U.S. border in Ottawa, could put this team in the conversation with that 1999 team.

“It would be the re-blooming of the Steel Roses,” Han said.

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Cameroon coach Enow Ngachu hailed China’s defensive organization after his team’s round-of-16 loss, stating that it was even better than that of current world champions Japan, whom debutantes Cameroon narrowly lost to in the group stage. Asked if China could beat the mighty U.S. in the quarterfinals, Ngachu said: “Of course, the Chinese defend very well. They have one of the best defenses in this tournament.”

Continued defensive prowess will be paramount for China on Friday, but with the pressure off and the pre-tournament objectives already achieved, China expects to play more carefree soccer, putting the onus on the Americans.

“We are already in the quarterfinal, which means we have already obtained our initial objective, so we just need to go as far as we can. No more pressure,” said Wang Shanshan, who scored the winning goal against Cameroon.

Pressure is something the U.S. has long thrived off of, but the response in this tournament has been different. The group stage was marked by nervy, tentative soccer – “tight” play, as longtime captain Christie Rampone put it last week – and Monday’s effort against Colombia hardly looked like a loose one.

There is a burden on this U.S. team that only Germany – a potential semifinal opponent – really carries with it: Win or fail. There are no grey areas for the Americans — #NoMaybes, as the social media campaign states.

A U.S. loss to China on Friday would be historic, no doubt, but shocking would be an overstatement given the way the tournament has trended. This is a world where there is no longer fear of the U.S. team, a world in which coaches and players from off-the-radar Iceland, Ireland and Colombia take shots at the U.S. team for its tactics, lack of creativity and lack of heart (so said the Colombians). This is a world where the once obedient drivers behind the pace cars realize that they too can have a go at the front of the pack.

“Nothing is definitive in soccer,” Han said. “Anything is possible. If they want to become the champions, they have to beat us first.”

Bring it on: an attitude that United States opponents are more frequently embracing.

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