EDMONTON—For a few minutes on Monday night, the non-American followers of the FIFA Women’s World Cup could enjoy some laughs and a few LOL tweets at the expense of Abby Wambach.
The American forward has been the world’s most vocal critic of the turf fields at this tournament, so her, ahem, emphatic penalty miss certainly put smiles on the faces of some of her critics. When the most polarizing personality in women’s soccer has such a misfire, there’s nowhere for her to hide.
But her miss couldn’t obscure the undeniable truth of this Round of 16 game at Commonwealth Stadium; that, after going down to 10 players, the underdog Colombians were in over their heads against the mighty Americans. The 2-0 win for the United States, if anything, offered a score line that flattered Colombia.
Many of the 19,412 in attendance hadn’t returned from their beer runs or bathroom breaks when this match took a dramatic turn.
The teams went into the half at 0-0. But, just seconds after the restart, U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe threaded a ball behind the Colombian back four, putting striker Alex Morgan into the clear. Goalkeeper Catalina Perez came sprinting off her line, made a desperate slide, and clipped Morgan’s ankles. Red card to the ‘keeper and a penalty kick.
Wambach stepped to the spot and missed way wide left—as in look-out-ball-retriever-and-photographers-behind-the-goal-line wide.
“I just shanked it,” Wambach admitted. “I hit it well but just off the mark. And that’s something that’s on me, my responsibility, I’ve got to bury that for my team. I told the coaches that, next time, given the opportunity, I’m going to put that away for my country.”
But, for the Colombians, it would be only a brief reprieve.
It didn’t take long for the red card to make another impact. On the next American attack, Morgan turned in the Colombian penalty area and shot from a poor angle. Routine save, right? But back-up goalkeeper Stefany Castano was out of position, inexplicably yards away from the near post. Still, Castano got a hand to the ball, but not a strong enough hand to keep the ball from bounding across the goal line. Castano who had been thrust into the limelight failed a very passable test in her first turn; 1-0 to the Americans.
From there on in, much to the dismay of the pro-Colombian crowd, the Americans could put it in cruise control against the 10-man South American side.
In the 66th minute, the U.S. got another chance from the penalty spot after Colombian defender Angela Clavijo was ruled to have fouled Rapinoe in the box. Wambach didn’t get the chance to make up for her rather embarrassing misfire; this time Carli Lloyd stepped up to take it, and slammed the ball down the middle.
American national-team coach Jill Ellis said the decision was made from the bench to give Lloyd the chance to take the penalty, and not allow Wambach the chance to atone for her earlier miss. The Americans have a rotation of three players on the field who can take the penalty, and both Wambach and Lloyd are part of that trio.
“That’s what happens when you miss, you don’t get to take another one,” Wambach said. “We’ll see what happens moving forward, but I am still confident that I can step up and bury a penalty right now against any goalkeeper in the world.”
But even though Ellis explained the call was made from the bench to give the ball to Lloyd, Wambach said Lloyd offered her the chance to take second-chance penalty.
The “we-got-this-in-the-bag” vibe was a stark contrast to the first half, which saw the Americans try time and time again to pump balls into the Colombian penalty area for Wambach or Morgan to get their heads onto. The U.S. refused to try and hold the ball in midfield, opting to have Morgan and Wambach challenge the four shorter Colombian defenders.
Wambach did put the ball into the net four minutes into the game off a shot from Tobin Heath, but was correctly ruled offside. Perez, who started the tournament as the back-up but was promoted into the starter’s role, also made a good one-handed save to deny a Wambach volley after the ball was flicked ahead by Morgan. Morgan’s 28th-minute header took a wicked bounce off the turf and forced Perez into a fingertip stop.
See the difference? Perez made the key saves when needed. With the game still at 0-0, Castano failed to stop the ball on an attack you wouldn’t have considered one of the Americans’ most dangerous of the night.
Colombian coach Felipe Taborda said that, despite the result, his players had shown an “iron will.”
“At times, the best team in the world didn’t look that good because of the way we performed,” Taborda offered.
Ellis said that the Americans were never expecting the match to be a walk.
“They’re a very good opponent. I thought we were persistent, I knew the chances were going to come. I thought we controlled most of the ball and limited their chances significantly. I knew that at some point, we’d break through,” Ellis said.
The American fans, who had packed stadiums in Winnipeg and Vancouver in the group stage, were not nearly as evident in Commonwealth. When the national anthems were played, the singing and cheering for the Colombian anthem were louder than the Star Spangled Banner. Edmonton isn’t a short drive from the U.S. border—like Winnipeg and Vancouver are—and American supporters were already looking forward to the next round.
Taborda said he was impressed by the show of support for the Colombians not only in Edmonton, but throughout Canada: “The yellow presence was something that very much motivated us.”
The Americans will face China in the quarterfinals in Ottawa on Friday. And they will need to face that well-organized (euphemism for “park the bus”) team without the services of Rapinoe or Lauren Holiday, who were both booked for first-half fouls against Colombia. As luck would have it, they were the only two American players who were on yellow cards going into the match, and each must miss the China encounter.
Wambach was asked about the yellow cards and, of course, couldn’t resist wading into controversial territory.
“I don’t know if they were yellows. It seemed like she (French referee Stephanie Frappart) was purposefully giving those yellows to, maybe players she knew were sitting on yellows. I don’t know if that’s a psychological thing. Who knows?” Wambach said.