EDMONTON — The United States remained on a strange and confounding path in this Women’s World Cup on Monday, adding a missed penalty kick by the greatest scorer in international football history to a long list of shortcomings.
But to their credit, the U.S. has discovered ways to remain in contention for a first title in 16 years. Despite another lackluster performance, they foiled Colombia’s courageous upset bid and claimed a 2-0 victory in a round-of-16 match attended by just 19,412 at Commonwealth Stadium.
With Colombia down a player after its young goalkeeper was ejected, Alex Morgan broke a scoreless tie early in the second half and Carli Lloyd did what Abby Wambach astonishingly could not — convert a penalty kick in the 66th minute.
Hope Solo and an impeccable back line did not yield any genuine opportunities in extending their shutout streak to 333 minutes for the second-ranked U.S. squad, who will face China in a quarterfinal Friday in Ottawa.
However, midfielders Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday collected their second yellow cards of the tournament and will miss the rematch of the 1999 final at the Rose Bowl.
“Not an easy situation, not an easy team to play against,” Lloyd said of the Colombians. “We improved a bit. . . . We keep telling everybody we haven’t peaked yet and we still have a few more games for that.”
Coach Jill Ellis did not make any lineup changes, keeping faith in Wambach and Morgan on the front line and Tobin Heath and Rapinoe bracketing Lloyd and Holiday in midfield.
The defensive crew, which allowed nine shots on goal in the group stage, has remained the same from the start of the tournament.
Each lineup featured a 2003 All-Met player of the year: U.S. defender Ali Krieger (Forest Park High) won the award in the spring and Colombia defender Nataly Arias (O’Connell High, then University of Maryland) earned it in the fall.
While the Colombians had exceeded expectations, escaping the group stage for the first time in a major tournament, the U.S. was underwhelming in topping their first-round quartet.
Those uneven tracks, combined with growing chatter by the Colombians, injected more intrigue than anyone could have foreseen for a game between historically disparate programs.
Among Colombia’s many challenges was at the goalkeeper position. With Sandra Sepulveda serving a yellow card suspension, Coach Fabian Taborda turned to 20-year-old Catalina Pérez, a Colombian-born, Florida-raised reserve from the University of Miami who sat out last college season recovering from an knee injury.
She was put to the test right away — and passed with flying colors. In the fourth minute, Pérez extended fully to her left to stop Heath’s low attempt from 18 yards. Wambach banged in the rebound but had been offside on the initial shot.
Ten minutes later, Pérez soared in making a one-handed slap save on Wambach’s wicked bid from the top of the box.
Aside from intermittent chances, the U.S. was not good with the ball and outplayed in midfield. The issue that plagued them in group play festered: no sustained rhythm or game-altering creativity.
Colombia gained traction late in the half, keeping possession and drawing a series of corner kicks and dangerous free kicks.
There’s no such thing as a 45-minute victory, but Colombia was beaming when referee Stephanie Frappart sounded the halftime whistle.
[We] played with an iron will from the beginning to the end,” Taborda said. “At times the best team in the world didn’t look that good as the result of the way we played.”
Two minutes into the half, the match swung in dramatic fashion. Rapinoe supplied Morgan for a breakaway. Pérez charged. As Morgan surged into the penalty area, Pérez upended her. Frappart awarded a penalty kick and showed a red card.
Pérez did not dispute her dismissal — it was a clear foul that denied a scoring opportunity — but there was some question whether Morgan was in the box when the fouled occurred.
Regardless, Pérez was headed to the locker room, Frappart set the ball on the penalty spot 12 yards from the target and Stefany Castano, 21, entered. Castano played at Iowa’s Graceland University, an NAIA program, and is now the Yellowjackets’ goalkeeping coach.
She jogged directly from the sideline to the goal line and prepared to face a penalty kick by Wambach, whose 183 international goals are the most by a man or woman in world football history.
Under the best of circumstances, a team gets away with conceding a penalty kick 20 percent of the time. Under these extraordinary circumstances, Colombia’s hopes were infinitesimal.
Diving to her left, Castano looked back as Wambach’s shot — taken with her weaker left foot — streaked wide of the vacant side of the net. American gasps were drowned out by Colombian howls.
The upset bid was alive and well.
Still, the Colombians had to remove a field player to compensate for the goalkeeping substitution, leaving them with 10 players.
The deadlock lasted four minutes. Krieger linked with Morgan on the right side of the box for an angled 12-yard bid toward the near corner. Castano was positioned too far to the middle, and when she reached back with her left arm, the ball struck the inside of her wrist and popped into the roof of the net.
Finally, U.S. fans were able to exhale.
In the 66th minute, they returned to the penalty spot after Angela Clavijo was slow to react to Rapinoe’s dash on the left side of the box and took her down. Lloyd took this penalty kick, depositing the ball into the right side of the net.
Colombia was finished.
© 2015, The Washington Post