De­fense may lead to ul­ti­mate goal

U. S. hasn’t been able to score much, but it might not have to

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - KEVIN BAX­TER ON SOC­CER

OT­TAWA — Chalk it up to par­ity. Or great de­fend­ing.

Or maybe, as Abby Wam­bach said, it’s the ar­ti­fi­cial turf.

What­ever the rea­son, goals have been hard to come by at this Women’s World Cup.

Twenty- four of the tour­na­ment’s 44 games — in­clud­ing five of eight in the round of 16 — have ended in shutouts. In group play there were two games in which nei­ther team scored — the first time there have been two score­less draws in the World Cup since 1999.

And that’s a trend that fa­vors the U. S., which has given up only one goal in four games and will en­ter Fri­day’s quar­ter­fi­nal with China work­ing on a streak of 333 score­less min­utes.

“If you don’t give up any goals,” U. S. Coach Jill El­lis said, “you’re go­ing to have a chance.”

But the Amer­i­cans aren’t the only ones pitch­ing shutouts. Canada, be­hind goal­keeper Erin McLeod, has given up only one goal in four games. France has held three op­po­nents score­less.

Ja­pan, the tour­na­ment’s only un­beaten, un­tied team, was mo­ments away from its third shutout when the Nether­lands scored in stop­page time of a 2- 1 loss in the fi­nal round of 16 game Tues-

day.

Of the eight quar­ter­fi­nal­ists, only three have given up more than two goals here. And that doesn’t in­clude Brazil, which didn’t con­cede a score in group play but gave up one in its sec­on­dround game and was up­set, 1- 0, by Aus­tralia.

“Scor­ing goals,” Wam­bach said “is not that easy.”

She should know. The top scorer, male or fe­male, in in­ter­na­tional soc­cer history, Wam­bach has only one goal in the tour­na­ment and her team has only six. But the deeper the U. S. goes and the more the em­pha­sis turns to de­fense, the less the sput­ter­ing U. S. at­tack fig­ures to mat­ter — and the more the Amer­i­cans can rely on goal­keeper Hope Solo and their bril­liant back line.

Thanks to the play of Ali Krieger, Becky Sauer­brunn, Julie John­ston and Meghan Klin­gen­berg in front of her, Solo has faced only nine shots in four games. She didn’t make her first save Mon­day un­til the 84th minute. And she wasn’t called on to make any stops in a group­play shutout of Swe­den.

So de­spite two weeks of lack­lus­ter and of­ten life­less play, the tour­na­ment might be set­ting up nicely for the U. S. Even the sched­ule is work­ing its fa­vor, be­cause af­ter win­ning the tour­na­ment’s so- called “Group of Depth,” the U. S. is the only quar­ter­fi­nal­ist who will play three con­sec­u­tive games against teams ranked out­side the top 15 in the FIFA world rank­ings.

Com­pare that to the chal­lenge fac­ing No. 1 Ger­many. Af­ter elim­i­nat­ing fifth- ranked Swe­den in the round of 16, Ger­many faces No. 3 France in its quar­ter­fi­nal. And if it wins that one, it will play the U. S.- China win­ner in the semi­fi­nals.

Sched­ules notwith­stand­ing, the Ger­mans still re­main fa­vorites to raise the Cup next month in Van­cou­ver. The World Cup’s most com­plete team, Ger­many has more goals ( 19) than four other quar­ter­fi­nal­ists have scored com­bined. And it boasts the tour­na­ment’s two lead­ing scor­ers in Anja Mit­tag and Celia Sa­sic, while Na­dine Angerer, the 2013 world player of the year, starts in goal.

In the lower half of the bracket, four top 10 teams are still alive. No. 8 Canada will play No. 6 Eng­land in one quar­ter­fi­nal and fourthranked Ja­pan, the de­fend­ing World Cup cham­pion, meets No. 10 Aus­tralia in the other.

Ex­pect Ja­pan to emerge from that four­some.

So though there have been sur­prises in the tour­na­ment, with the ex­cep­tion of Brazil’s ab­sence there are re­ally no sur­prises among the eight quar­ter­fi­nal­ists.

In many ways, then, the tour­na­ment is just be­gin­ning.

“From the early group games, you can see this is just an ul­tra- com­pet­i­tive — the most com­pet­i­tive — World Cup to date,” El­lis said. “Cer­tainly noth­ing is taken for granted.”

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