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USA take on China sans Rapinoe and Holiday

USWNT vs China minus Rapinoe and Holiday: 3 tips for USA to reach FIFA WWC semis

June 26, 2015 By Michelle Bonsu
In the absence of key midfielders Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday, can the USWNT find a way to deal with familiar opponent China?

They huffed, they puffed, but they finally got the job done. After successfully navigating through their tricky quartet - all without hitting full stride - the USWNT took on a hungry Colombia side determined to make their progression to the quarter-finals as difficult as possible. However, Jill Ellis's ladies finally made a breakthrough after veteran striker Abby Wambach's shock penalty miss through an early second half effort from Alex Morgan.

13 minutes after that, Carli Lloyd converted from the spot to dispatch the South Americans and set up an interesting re-match with China, 16 years after the two battled it out in a historic World Cup final on a hot summer day in July. Yet, this vital and morale-boosting win came at a steep price for the Stars and Stripes, who have been largely underwhelming in their seventh World Cup appearance. Both Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday will have to sit out due to a ban following receiving yellow cards against Colombia, something that their teammate Wambach found herself in hot water after questioning the referee's decisions.

Although the Chinese are one of the weaker teams at this stage, Hao Wei's squad are still here at this juncture thanks to a strong defensive approach. Their football is not the nicest to watch, but it is efficient. As such, despite the USA's having made it to every semi-final since the WWC was created in 1991, the absence of Rapinoe and Holiday will be keenly felt as they seek to edge closer to the final next month.

But, one cannot always have things their way and Ellis will have to manage her squad to the best of her ability. Here are a few ways how team USA could compensate against China, who will be desperate to finally beat the Americans who have consistently thwarted them since their first meeting in 1986.

1. Switch and swap with Tobin Heath and Christen Press

Rapinoe has arguably been her team's most creative spark at this tournament. The 29-year-old has been involved in nearly every single one of her team's six goals so far, with a brace in their opening 3-1 win over Australia, an assist for Wambach in their 1-0 victory over Nigeria, and winning a penalty against Colombia that Lloyd converted for the team's second.

As such, she is simply irreplacable. However, the team do boast players like Christen Press and Tobin Heath, the former of whom Rapinoe herself mooted as a likely possibility to step in for her against China:

"[With] Press, it’s kind of a straight swap. She did well tonight and can be so dangerous. She’s quick, she’s very smart, really good around the box. I think she’ll probably step into that role," she analysed following their win over the Colombians.

However, given that Press plays on the right, it will likely be Heath who will slot into Rapinoe's left-hand spot as she did during their 1-0 win over Nigeria. In that match, Rapinoe played on the right before being subbed out in favour of veteran Shannon Boxx. Press could then be given the opportunity to do her work on her preferred right-hand side as they seek a way to unlock the potentially bunkered-in Chinese defense.

2. Gamble with youth and do not tinker with the back-four

This stat will certainly worry USWNT fans ahead of tonight's big game:

 

Holiday's absence in the middle of the park will be also keenly felt. Like Rapinoe, she has been one of the team's brightest stars so far in Canada and unfortunately, her potential replacement, Morgan Brian, is still cutting her teeth at this level. In fact, Brian, who is just 22, would have just started primary school the last time the USA won the World Cup in 1999. Yet, she is no stranger to playing at a higher level, having done so at the age of 15 when she represented her country during the U-17 Women's World Cup, placing third, so is confident in her chances to do well if called into action.

On the other hand, there is Julie Johnston, who is naturally a central midfielder, but the 23-year-old has been used as a defender by Ellis and has performed brilliantly in the middle in a great pairing alongside the experienced centre-back Becky Sauerbrunn. It is thanks to these two, alongside Hope Solo, that the USA have only conceded one goal and despite the possible temptation to mix things up, do not expect Ellis to bring Johnston back into her natural position in midfield just for this game.

3. Be aggressive, yet cautious and efficient

China will be content to sit back, absorb pressure and hold out for spot-kicks. This is a result that the USA cannot afford as they will next face either Germany or France in the semi-finals. For starters, the physical effort of playing extra time and then the mental taxation required to get through a tense penalty shoot-out is something needed to be avoided at all costs. Hence, they will need to make their chances count as they will be far and few between, and the lack of creativity due to Rapinoe's absence will be keenly felt.

Ellis might have to change things up from her preferred 4-4-2 formation as she did against Colombia, moving to a 4-3-2-1 set-up. And the team will also have to venture out of their comfort zone, as midfielder Lloyd noted during a pre-match press conference:

"Yes, [our] defensive shape has been strong. But I think in order for us to win this thing and in order for us to show the world what we've got, we've got to take some risks at some point."

Without risk, there is no reward. And due to an unfortunate twist of fate, they will have to risk it all against China without the presence of Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday. Will they be able to book their spot in what would be an tantalising semi-final clash with either Germany or France in a few days' time?

Fans and many neutrals will certainly hope to see the "real" team USA tonight, even if means taking on a new look, approach, and formation to hopefully settle things within 90 minutes of regulation time.

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