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USWNT vs. Colombia, 2015 World Cup preview: Keys to an American win

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Michael Chow-USA TODAY Sports

The United States are into the knockout stages, and as the first place team from Group D to boot. Now they're onto the round of 16 and Colombia.

Colombia, the pesky team that beat France. The team that won't stop talking about the U.S. The team that has a chance to knock the Americans out of the World Cup.

The knockout stages make for a scary time. One match can end a team's World Cup and that's especially frightening for the U.S. Not only are they no longer the dominant powerhouse they once were -- they're still good and a World Cup contender -- but they have adjusted their style to one more focused on defense, which gives them less margin for error. Toss in a round of 16 opponent that has shown they can beat a top team, not to mention also have the confidence from that win, and the American fans are going to be justifiably on edge.

What does the U.S. need to do to beat Colombia?

Sauerbrunn and Johnston have to keep shining

Whereas Pia Sundhage's U.S. teams tried to outscore every team they played and were more than happy to trade goals, Jill Ellis' side have been leaning on their defense. They conceded just once in the entire group stage.

The Americans' approach has worked because of their duo in the center of defense -- Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston. Both of them have been absolutely phenomenal, with Johnston continuing her rapid ascent and Sauerbrunn reading the game so incredibly well that she's been a cover for both her central partner and left back Meghan Klingenberg. No center back partners at the World Cup have been as good as the Americans, keeping Hope Solo generally unbothered despite fullbacks flying up the pitch and no real defensive midfielder in the lineup. That has to continue.

Does any striker want to step up?

Three matches in, the U.S. still isn't getting great striker play. They may not even be getting good striker play.

Abby Wambach scored against Nigeria, but she's had serious problems otherwise and is limited. Alex Morgan looked speedy and her runs were excellent, but the rust that is to be expected from a player who hadn't started a match in months was all too present. Sydney Leroux's pace continues to give opposing defenses problems, but her own faulty touch gives her and the U.S. just as many. Christen Press is a fourth option and Amy Rodriguez can't get on the pitch for extended run.

So who does the U.S. have? It's not entirely clear.

For years we have heard about how great the U.S. is up front and, at times, each of the American strikers has been incredible, but that's not the case right now. Be it age, injury, bad form or an inability to see the field, the U.S. have problems up front, but they're going to need to get better play up top if they want to win the World Cup. At some point, one or two of them need to start clicking.

Get off to a quick start

Colombia know they can beat a top team because they've done it, but they responded to that win over France with a loss to England. Not only that, but they were soundly outplayed and never looked like they were in the match.

The worst thing the U.S. could do is let Colombia go into the second half believing they have a good shot at winning the match. If that happens, Colombia will only grow in confidence and the pressure will turn to the U.S. But if the Americans can jump ahead early and control the match through the midfield while dominating at the back, Colombia could become desperate and let the match get away from them.