The last time that the United States met China in the World Cup, Brandi Chastain was on her knees in front of a sold out Rose Bowl, having ripped her shirt off after converting the winning penalty kick in the 1999 World Cup final. It was a momentous day in women's soccer, and women's sports. To this ay, it remains the most famous match in Women's World Cup history.
Since then, the U.S. has failed to win another World Cup, but they have kept their place among the best teams on Earth. They have seen megastars like Abby Wambach and Hope Solo emerge, won three Olympic golds and had an unmatched run as the No. 1 ranked team in the world. When they entered this summer's World Cup, they did so as one of the favorites, having never failed to make the semifinals in the tournament's history.
Things haven't gone as well for China, who tumbled after 1999. They were quickly outstripped by the likes of Germany and Sweden, then later France, Japan and a couple dozen other countries. They haven't made it to the semifinals since and in 2011, didn't even qualify for the World Cup. It was a precipitous fall, but one that sparked a change in the country's development systems and the composition of their team.
Now China are the young upstarts, featuring 15 players under the age of 24. They are stout defensively and rode that to this point — the World Cup quarterfinals.
The U.S. has had an excellent defense to this point, but that is about all they have in common with China. They are an old team, they have soared since 1999 and they aren't just expected to be here, everyone expects them to continue on. So what do they have to do to book a spot in the semifinals?
Replacing Holiday and Rapinoe
Lauren Holiday and Megan Rapinoe are suspended for the match after picking up their second yellow cards of the tournament in the last match — yes, that rule is asinine — and the U.S. are now tasked with replacing two integral parts of their team that have started every match this World Cup. That's especially worrying against a good defensive team like China because it figures to be a low-scoring match with little room for error, even if the Americans are heavy favorites.
Rapinoe's absence presents a very clear problem — who will create chances? While Rapinoe does play on the wing, she often cuts in and her creativity has been the source of the Americans' threat going forward. Whether it's scoring goals, as she did twice in the tournament opener, or making the key pass, as she did to set up the Alex Morgan breakaway for the red card and penalty in the round of 16, she's the hub for this team. The U.S. already struggles to do much in the final third and now they're without their creative force.
Holiday isn't quite as big of an absence because she hasn't played at her best, something that can be attributed in large part to her being out of position. But she's still been the Americans' second-best source of chances with her passing and she's gained somewhat of an understanding with Carli Lloyd on how to handle the center of the pitch. Toss in that she, along with Rapinoe, are the Amerians' best dead ball takers and the U.S. has two big holes to fill.
Christen Press is expected to take over for Rapinoe, which is hardly a like-for-like switch. Press is a forward and she'll give the U.S. another dangerous player going forward, but she's not going to be near the creator Rapinoe is so Tobin Heath — assuming she starts — on the other wing will have to take on a more creative role. Morgan Brian should get the nod in place of Holiday and it will be imperative that she isn't just tidy on the ball, but doesn't give away too much space in the center of the pitch to gift China chances that they will otherwise struggle to create.
Combatting Wang Shanshan
Wang Shanshan spent most of her career as a centerback, so it was a shock when China moved her to forward for the World Cup, but their decision has paid off. She's been potent up top, scoring against New Zealand in the group stage and then netting the only tally in China's 1-0 round of 16 win over Cameroon.
China are going to struggle for chances, let alone goals. But Wang has shown herself to be dangerous and the one player not just capable of creating shots, but finishing them. That's especially true on the counterattack or on broken plays, where she has shown a knack for finding the ball in chaos. The U.S. will have to make sure to keep tabs on Wang because any looks at goals will probably include her and she can be tricky to keep tabs on, but if they can eliminate her then the Americans shouldn't have a problem keeping their fourth consecutive clean sheet.
Convert on set pieces
Chances are going to be harder to come by without Rapinoe and Holiday, and that's doubly true against a good defense like China. The U.S. doesn't offer a ton in the attack from the run of play and Jill Ellis has made it clear that she's emphasizing set pieces as their way to score — even if that's ridiculous — so the Americans better start actually scoring on them.
The U.S. has just one set piece goal all World Cup — Abby Wambach's kneed-in tally on a corner kick against Nigeria. But even that goal came against a team that was horrific defending set pieces all tournament so that isn't something to get too excited about.
Generating set piece opportunities hasn't been a problem for the U.S. They get them time and time again, but despite having big players who are good in the air like Wambach and Julie Johnston, they haven't been able to convert. That can't be the case against China because they're going to struggle for looks otherwise and if they come up empty on set pieces yet again then they may be facing extra time or penalties at 0-0.