COVENTRY, England – With their quarterfinal berth already clinched, and with their offense rolling, the US women's national team heads into Tuesday's group stage finale against North Korea brimming with confidence and ready to clinch first place in their group.
Standing in the way of that goal is a North Korea side that was just destroyed by France last Saturday. The dangerous French attack ran circles around the North Koreans in a display that might be a preview of what the Americans could do at Old Trafford on Tuesday.
The Americans come in off a 3-0 victory against Colombia that was comprehensive, if not overwhelming. The Colombians defended well in the early going, even causing the American defenders problems during brief stretches. Nevertheless, the Colombians never could trouble Hope Solo with truly dangerous chances.
The USA attack took a while to get going against Colombia, and should face a tougher challenge from a North Korea side that is still harboring slim hope of a place in the quarterfinals. While the 5-0 loss to France might suggest otherwise, the eighth ranked team in the world actually held France to one goal through 70 minutes before the French unleashed a four-goal barrage late in the match. Forward Song Hui Kim scored two goals against Colombia and will present more of a threat than any of Colombia's forwards did on Saturday.
Pia Sundhage made two changes from the opening win against France, starting Heather O'Reilly and Heather Mitts. Neither player stood out against Colombia to the point that they should be considered locks to stay in the lineup. Tobin Heath followed up her impressive match against France with an impact effort off the bench against Colombia.
With Heath back in the lineup, Megan Rapinoe should reprise her role on the right wing, giving the Americans the speedy flanks to open up North Korea the way France did. What Sundhage will have to decide is whether she can afford to rest a player like Rapinoe, Abby Wambach or Alex Morgan with the quarterfinals around the corner.
Sundhage could keep O'Reilly in and rest Rapinoe, but that would risk leaving the USA without the spark plug who has driven the attack in both victories this tournament. A player like Wambach might be a player to rest, considering that she has put in serious work through two victories. Wambach is now sporting a black eye after being punched in the face by Colombian forward Lady Andrade, who was suspended for two matches on Monday for the incident.
Sundhage will also have to decide on which back four to play against North Korea, with continuity heading into the quarterfinals something she will want to develop. Does she bring back Amy LePeilbet at right back, or give the veteran Mitts a second shot at the job? At centerback, Rachel Buehler turned in a steadier effort against Colombia than she did against France, but was also facing considerably weaker forwards. Sundhage could select to start the impressive young defender Becky Sauerbrunn.
Perhaps of greater concern for Sundhage will be getting her team, specifically her goalkeeper, re-focused on the task at hand. Hope Solo drew global headlines for her Twitter outburst aimed at TV commentator and former US national team star Brandi Chastain. Sundhage made it clear that she wanted her players focused on playing and not on responding to critics and making negative public remarks.
"We had a conversation: If you look at the women's national team, what do you want (people) to see? What do you want them to hear?" Sundhage told reporters at the team hotel. "And that's where we do have a choice -- as players, coaches, staff, the way we respond to certain things."
The spotlight will be on Solo on Tuesday, and how she handles the reaction to her Twitter outburst. It will also be on her defense, which she was presumably trying to stick up for after Chastain made some critical comments about the US defense. If captain Christie Rampone can keep the defense organized and if the back four puts on a solid, mistake-free effort against North Korea, a victory and first place in the group will be all but assured. The attention will ultimately go back to what the US team is doing on the field rather than what the team is saying off the field.