Are you a fan of the New York Yankees' ruthless, relentless gathering of baseball's best talent? How much do you admire the New England Patriots' dour, dogged NFL dynasty? Did you enjoy watching Chelsea FC grind the rest of the English Premier League to mincemeat this season with their signature blend of pricey attackers and suffocating defense?
If you said yes to any of the above, you're probably savoring the US women's national team as they churn through the competition at the Women's World Cup in Canada like cleats stabbing across artificial-turf infill.
On Monday night – just like in all three of their group-stage matches – the Yanks were uninspired going forward, rhythm-less in midfield and generally aggravating to watch if you're someone who puts a lot of weight into footballing aesthetics. And they still hacked down the plucky Cinderellas from Colombia in a 2-0 win that was effectively stitched up with half an hour still to play.
My three thoughts:
1) Jill Ellis doesn't care what you think
This US team isn't designed to entertain (although it could, if it was so inclined). It's designed to crush everything standing between it and the World Cup trophy that has been so keenly missed for the last 16 years. As frustrating as they've been, Abby Wambach & Co. are now just three wins away from the trophy they crave.
This isn't a Brazilian samba dance towards the title, or a rhythmic Spanish rondo around the opposition. It's a campaign of attrition, a slow but (possibly) unstoppable march across Canada. Tactics-wise, head coach Jill Ellis has kept things simple for her players – probably too simple at times – but if that means that games are decided by individual matchups and/or collective sums of ability, fitness and experience, the US will usually triumph in the end.
"If she (Jill Ellis) is pleased with the way we played tonight then what the hell is she doing coaching our US team" - @MichelleAkers10— SiriusXM FC (@SiriusXMFC) June 23, 2015
Even taking into account the useful players that Ellis elected to leave at home, no one in the world – with the possible exception of Germany, who could be waiting in the semifinals – has more strength in depth than the USWNT. It won't be that way forever, but it is for now. And that makes brilliant individual talents like Colombian striker Lady Andrade and her magical footwork compelling, but ultimately futile.
The great irony of the Wambach-led players' fight against FIFA's use of artificial turf at this event is that the surface wears down bodies over time, giving deep, fit, scientifically-oriented squads an advantage. This USWNT is best suited to win a marathon.
2) But this was a costly win
Fans of the San Jose Earthquakes/Houston Dynamo teams that claimed several MLS Cups in the middle of the last decade will tell you that even the toughest, most organized and physical units need a spark or two of creativity to win things. Those teams had plenty of worker bees, and damn good ones – but guys like Landon Donovan and Dwayne De Rosario were the talent that made sure goals arrived when needed.
That's why the first-half yellow card awarded to Megan Rapinoe on Monday could prove so costly when the USWNT face off against China's well-organized defense in Ottawa on Friday.
While her team as a whole has had a plodding, conservative bent to it, Rapinoe remains the wild card, the one that can make things happen out of nothing. Her quick feet can trouble opponents anywhere on the field, her maverick personality always shines through in her decision-making and her bustling work rate ensures that she'll cause havoc in dangerous spaces sooner or later.
Against Colombia, It was her pass (made possible by a nimble, leaping first touch) that found Alex Morgan streaking into space to draw the game-changing red card and penalty kick against unlucky young goalkeeper Catalina Perez. It was her quick cut in the box that drew the Yanks' second PK call, the one that Carli Lloyd banged into the net.
With Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday now suspended under FIFA's ludicrous “two strikes and you're out” WWC discipline policy, coach Jill Ellis has other options for wide midfield, and can patch up the central hole left by Holiday. But there's no direct replacement for “Pinoe,” no one else with the dynamism to dress up this workmanlike team up in something sparkly and fun.
the overall play has regressed under ellis and they've become a team reliant on individual brilliance to see them win over solid team play— davina (@bertiedav) June 23, 2015
3) How do you solve a problem like Abby?
Wambach continues to be this team's – this tournament's – great enigma. Everyone, her included, recognizes that she's on the downslope of her career, no longer the dominating presence of old. She's actually missed more chances than she's made this month, which is downright weird to watch. On Monday she missed a PK, badly, and saw an early finish waved off for offside.
But she's still got a nose for goal and a flair for the moment, as she showed with the game-winner vs. Nigeria. Equally importantly, she's a reference point for the US, an old-fashioned No. 9 who can hold up play and bring others into the game.
Wambach's teammates have at times looked lost without her, which suggests that Ellis hasn't crafted much of an alternative to the direct approach built with her in mind.
She's lost a step or two speedwise, which means she's unlikely to track down too many of the hopeful long balls into space that the USWNT resorts to all too often. With the hard miles stacking up as this World Cup run continues, it seems highly inadvisable to expect 90-minute outings out of her (she made way for Morgan Brian with 20 minutes to go on Monday, but went the distance against Nigeria and Australia).
Can she accept a supersub role? Can her colleagues cope without her? How can they keep pace with the likes of Germany in either scenario?
Stay tuned. The real battles still lie ahead.