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Global Jun 23, 2015

USWNT: Good enough is good enough, but something amiss in Women’s World Cup run

The early reviews from the pressbox in Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium were pretty rough.

“This game was no oil painting,” wrote ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle of the U.S. Women’s National Team’s 2-0 defeat of Colombia on Monday. “The tempo was back to that seen during the group stage against Sweden – slow and cumbersome with little combination play.

“For now, the U.S. can at least be content that it survived to play another game.”

“The U.S. offense had struggled again to create much against a World Cup opponent that was supposed to be overmatched,” was the word from Sports Illustrated‘s Grant Wahl.

“As in the group stage, the United States didn’t perform to the standards of a team expected to contend for the trophy and end a 16-year championship drought,” noted Washington Post veteran Steve Goff, alluding to the USWNT’s “ineffectiveness.”

Though observing from a few hours down the road, Bobby McMahon summed up the symptoms succintly: “Rock solid in defense; industrious in midfield but lacking a creative spark; predictable in the final delivery from wide positions; not particularly sharp in the opposition’s penalty box,” the Canadian-based analyst said in a Forbes piece revealingly dubbed “What If The USA Don’t Have Another Level at This Women’s World Cup?”

Then USWNT legend and two-time World Cup winner Michelle Akers appeared on SiriusXM FC and upped the ante with a forceful critique of head coach Jill Ellis.

Michelle Akers“The coach isn’t handling the personnel right, the lineup sucks, the subs are sketchy,” she said. “We aren’t performing at our best, Some of our coaching decisions are unexplainable. If she [Ellis] is pleased with the way we played tonight, then what the hell is she doing coaching our US team?”

Suffice to say, the USWNT just aren’t playing very impressive soccer at the moment, and haven’t in months.

Their ability to collect positive results in the meantime is admirable, to be sure, and the majority of the millions watching back home don’t know or care too much about the difference. The end goal is all that matters here, as has been repeatedly noted.

+READ: USWNT blanks Colombia 2-0, advances to World Cup Quarterfinals

But as has also been noted, Ellis and her team won’t get much advance notice if and when what they’re doing stops working. We’ve always known that this team’s real tests await in the final stages of this tournament, against the likes of Germany, France or Brazil (though Australia did the Yanks a favor by knocking off the latter over the weekend). Everything it takes to reach that point is a prologue to be navigated without major gaffes.

Perhaps most unsettling is the strange atmosphere around this team, which traditionally values unity and positive chemistry so much.

Abby-Wambach-is-upsetAdd up Hope Solo‘s legal troubles, Abby Wambach‘s escalating outspokenness, the ongoing frustration about the unsuccessful attempt to force FIFA to switch from turf to grass and the ever-present pressure that comes with the USWNT name, especially at a World Cup.

Based on what knowledgeable sources close to the team tell me, you can also factor in a simmering set of behind-the-scenes stresses that are difficult to pin down, but undoubtedly influential.

Most of it is highly sensitive and impossible to verify, but I hear whispers that:

*Morale is down – way down – and Ellis has lost the respect, and perhaps even the buy-in, of as much as half the roster

*The team’s elementary style of play has even drawn mockery from players themselves, with one jokingly referring to the USWNT’s “sh** tactics” in text messages with club teammates

*Respected fitness coach Dawn Scott, whose work has been celebrated with good reason, is working on wages well below what her resume and results would garner elsewhere and submitted a letter of resignation earlier this year, only to be convinced to stay on

*A strong collective bargaining agreement between the players and the U.S. Soccer Federation limits the coaching staff’s latitude to drop established players and call up new ones, breeding entitlement in some quarters.

Obviously, at the end of the day this can all be written off as hearsay. It will take years for the gritty details of that locker room environment to be revealed to the general public – if ever – and many of these players are accustomed to tuning out distractions and performing at a high level.

+READ: Dure: Women’s World Cup shows it’s all about finishing

But as has been said before, the margin for error grows smaller with progressive round of this tournament. And it’s already happening, even for the Friday quarterfinal match in which the US remain heavily favored.

Megan-Rapinoe-in-USWNT's-win-over-Australia,-WWC-2015The stingy, organized defense of China awaits in Ottawa on Friday, and will have to be broken down without the creativity and urgency of the priceless Megan Rapinoe, who (along with Lauren Holiday) earned a one-game suspension with her second yellow card of the tournament Monday.

Can someone else step up in her absence? The odds say the USWNT will do enough – probably just enough – to get past the team ranked 16th in the world by FIFA’s rankings. Yet given the difficulties breaking down a 10-woman Colombia side, even with the benefit of two penalty kicks awarded, a nerve-wracking 0-0 stalemate – and subsequent PK shootout – could easily unfold, which would throw the Yanks’ championship dreams up for grabs far ahead of schedule.

Want a bright side? At least the defense – the only area of the lineup to undergo significant turnover since the 2012 Olympics – has been outstanding.