The United States has achieved its minimum expectations in the Women's World Cup, and now the U.S. has reached the part of the tournament where a loss is understandable. Its opponent on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET, FOX) is Germany, the No. 1-ranked team in the world, the reigning European champions and the leading scorers at this World Cup. Germany's beatable, but the Americans are going to have a hard time winning.
Germany is widely considered to be a better team than the United States on current form, and based on the less than thrilling style of soccer that the USWNT has played recently, it's a reasonable conclusion to come to. But the fact is, we really don't know who's better. The last time they played was 2013, when the U.S. beat Germany in the Algarve Cup, then drew against the Germans in a friendly two months later. The last time the two teams played in a major tournament was at the 2004 Summer Olympics. They've dodged each other for the last two Olympics and World Cups, and they don't love scheduling each other.
In the quarterfinals, France outplayed Germany for the most part and exposed some of its weaknesses, though the French did it with personnel that the USWNT can't necessarily match like-for-like. A lot of what France did is duplicable, or can be improved upon. In other cases, the U.S. can't follow France's blueprint.
The U.S. does not have a Amandine Henry or Camille Abily
Germany was outplayed in the center of midfield by two players who are better defensively and better passers than anyone the United States has. Carli Lloyd can score goals, Lauren Holiday is creative and Morgan Brian has no serious holes in her game, but it's impossible for them to duplicate what Henry and Abily did to Germany. The U.S. midfielders can't match their ball-winning and mid-range passing abilities.
The only way for the USWNT to match the attacking, defensive and transitional output of Abily or Henry is to change formations and play three central midfielders, winning the battle with numbers instead of quality. It seems highly unlikely that Jill Ellis is going to do that. Instead, she's just going to hope Lloyd has an outstanding game.
Anja Mittag is unlikely to play that poorly again
The weirdest thing about Germany's first half against France, in which it got trucked and should have gone down by two or three goals, was how awful Mittag was. She's a world-class attacking midfielder, and she was Germany's most consistent player in the tournament up until the quarterfinal match. But she constantly turned the ball over against France, and was substituted at halftime even though she didn't have a serious injury. Germany boss Silvia Neid knew Dzsenifer Marozsán only had 45 good minutes in her, and when Neid put her on at halftime, Mittag was the player she decided to yank.
It would be downright stunning if Mittag was that bad again. This is partially related to the first point, on the U.S. not having defensive midfielders who match France's quality. Even if she lacked sharpness in the same way that she did against France, Mittag would probably look better against the U.S. than she did in that game.
So, that's the bad news. The Americans can't magically generate world-class central midfielders or expect Mittag to have another bad game. But that doesn't mean there's nothing going in their favor. Here's the good news.
Dzsenifer Marozsán, maybe the best player in the world, is doubtful
Lena Goeßling, who started in Marozsán's place against France, is a perfectly decent player. There's nothing wrong with her and she's good enough to be a starter on a World Cup-winning team. Still, the difference between her and Marozsán was glaring, early and often, in the quarterfinals. She had a few turnovers in spots where Marozsán would not have.
Here's an example. A half-second after this capture, France had the ball and was breaking the other way.
Once Marozsán was on, Germany's attack changed significantly. It took less than five minutes for her to create her team's best chance up to that point, and it was from a place where the French probably thought they weren't in any danger. Marozsán is double-teamed here, being shoved into a place where it's hard to make a dangerous pass, and France has players covering both Germany's attackers and dangerous spaces that players could make late runs into. She finds a way to turn away from two defenders and make a pass to set up a great shot anyway.
Goeßling avoids unforced errors and does a good job making safe passes. Marozsán turns situations that would be understandable forced turnovers into scoring chances with ridiculous regularity. She's almost certainly the best attacking or playmaking midfielder in the world, and she's extremely unlikely to start against the United States.
Marozsán came into this tournament with an injury and has been nursing it throughout, and she might have been fine if Germany had beaten France in regulation time. Instead, she had to play an extra 30 minutes on her injured ankle and was having serious trouble walking at the end of the match.
She'll dress, but sitting behind a "break glass in case of emergency" case. Don't expect to see her unless Germany is trailing late in the second half, or gets to extra time. And while that's awful news for neutral fans, it's great news for the Americans.
Megan Rapinoe is almost a Louisa Necib equivalent
Necib, France's left winger, had her best game of the tournament against Germany, and the United States has a similar player in Rapinoe. She's not exactly the same style of silky technician, but functionally, she does the same things. She's a left winger who can help her team get the ball and serves as the primary playmaker. Even if her touches and passes don't look as smooth and effortless as Necib's, they're just as effective. She doesn't turn the ball over easily and she sets up goals with her creativity. If the Germans had a hard time containing Necib, they will also have a hard time containing Rapinoe.
The Americans are as good or better in defense and goal
Wendie Renard and Laura Georges are very good central defenders, but the American pair might be even better. Ever since Julie Johnston's minor hiccup on Australia's goal in the first group stage game, she's been her team's best player. Her partner, Becky Sauerbrunn, hasn't put a foot wrong all tournament. As good as Celia Šašić is, she was kept relatively quiet by Norway and France. There's no reason that the U.S. center backs, who completely shut down Sweden's Lotta Schelin, can't do the same thing.
And then there's the goalkeeper. Even if you think Hope Solo has no business coming anywhere near a U.S. national team, she remains the starter between the sticks, and she's undoubtedly the best in the world. There was a time when Germany's Nadine Angerer had a claim to the throne, but at 36 and with retirement looming for her, that throne is undisputed. It belongs to Solo, period. And she's worlds better than France keeper Sarah Bouhaddi.
After that, there's one big remaining question that it's impossible to come up with an easy answer for.
Can an American winger do what Elodie Thomis did?
Germany left back Tabea Kemme got absolutely torched by France's right winger, Thomis, over and over again. The U.S. might have a Thomis equivalent in Crystal Dunn rising through the ranks, but she's at home. There isn't a clear like-for-like right winger on the U.S. squad.
But that's not to say the Americans don't have a right winger who can beat Kemme like a drum. A younger version of Heather O'Reilly certainly had it in her, and it's yet to be seen if she can find some of that old magic in this tournament. Christen Press certainly has the pace and skill to duplicate Thomis' game, but she hasn't yet played like a true right winger when deployed in that spot. Perhaps, with a bit of direction from her coaching staff, she could terrorize Kemme down that flank like Thomis did.
So what can the USWNT do to beat Germany?
Three big things, one of which is not really tactical.
1. Hope Solo outplaying Nadine Angerer - There's nothing Ellis can do to ensure this, but it's going to be necessary. Even if the U.S. plays a great game and Ellis has the perfect tactical game plan, the Americans aren't winning unless Solo is excellent and Angerer is slightly less than excellent. The U.S. can create more quality shots and restrict Germany's quality shots, but it's not going to stop Germany from getting shots off. Solo has to be great.
2. Stopping build-up from the back - Germany is noted for its possession play and the United States is derided for hoofing the ball aimlessly. But in the quarterfinals, something pretty amazing happened -- France figured out how to turn Germany into hoofers.
The French laid off the central defenders when Germany tried to pass out of the back and took away passing lanes, while the German defenders took the bait. They blasted the ball up the pitch, and France won a lot of 50-50 battles in the air. Germany got the picture eventually and started dropping Goeßling deep to pick up the ball, but France still did a great job of taking passing lanes away and making the Germans bypass midfield.
Nothing we've seen from the Americans indicates that they know how to do this, but their players aren't unskilled or unintelligent. They're certainly capable of duplicating this tactic.
3. Pumping it down the wings - Kemme and right back Leonie Maier are just decent players, and they only get decent support from their wingers. If there's a place the U.S. has an advantage, it's in wide areas. This is the same as the China match, but for completely different reasons. China literally conceded wide areas on purpose to prioritize clogging the middle, but Germany plays a very conventional formation -- defensive wide areas are just a place where its players aren't anything special.
American fans are probably really sick of hearing this, but they are likely to get nowhere if Rapinoe is not excellent. She was the United States' best attacking player in the four games that she played in, and she will probably be the best attacking player again on Tuesday.
Feed Rapinoe. If your right wing matchup looks good, feed her too. Don't allow Germany to build from the back. Pray Solo is at her best. That's the recipe for beating Germany.