WOLFSBURG, Germany — The first header was misdirected, going a few feet wide. The next soared over the goal. A shot from close-range smacked into a defender, and another easy chance banged off the post.
By the end of the game, all Abby Wambach could do was laugh at the miscues.
“It’s a joke at that point,” she said.
Finishing has been an issue all year for the United States, and it’s more of the same at the women’s World Cup. Though the Americans have five goals from their first two matches, they easily could have double that. Wambach and fellow forward Amy Rodriguez have been missing — badly — and others are squandering chances, too.
The missed opportunities haven’t cost the Americans — yet. But chances are sure to dwindle the deeper they go in the tournament, and the Americans can’t afford to keep leaving goals on the field.
“We didn’t finish our chances,” coach Pia Sundhage acknowledged after the U.S. routed Colombia 3-0 on Saturday. “But as long as we create chances, I’m happy. We’ll put away the chances eventually.”
Already through to the quarterfinals, the United States plays Sweden on Wednesday to determine the Group C winner. The Americans have the advantage in goal differential, meaning they’ll finish atop the group with a win or a tie.
Goals have been hard to come by for almost everybody in the tournament. Only Japan (six) has scored more than the U.S., with France also having five. Germany, the two-time defending champion and pre-tournament favorite, has scored just three times.
But unlike most teams, the Americans aren’t trying to scratch out opportunities. They’ve had them. Loads of ‘em. In the first two games, the U.S. had 21 shots on goal.
Compare that with Japan, which had 13. Or Germany, which had 15.
So what’s the problem? It starts up front, with Wambach and Rodriguez.
Few defenders can keep pace with Rodriguez, and that speed helps her get plenty of good looks around the goal. But her shots have been just a touch off. Take her rebound of a Wambach miss early against Colombia. She had a straight-on shot from close range, only to put too much power behind it and send it flying over the goal.
“I have the greatest teammates,” Rodriguez said. “Every shot I took, they were like, ‘You’re going to get the next one, you’re going to get the next one.”’
That’s Wambach’s mindset, too.
Wambach is the third-leading scorer in U.S. history with 117 goals, and is second only to Michelle Akers with nine World Cup goals. But she has scored just once this season, and her shortcomings here have been glaring. She is the world’s best player in the air, yet her headers have clearly been off-target.
“I could sit here and analyze and reanalyze every shot I took today and why it didn’t go in,” Wambach said after the Colombia game. “But that would be selfish on my part. It’s not about me, it’s about the team.”
Wambach has yet to win a World Cup — the last U.S. title came in 1999 — and has said repeatedly that the title means more to her than adding to her goal tally.
“I’d rather win it and not score than score six goals and us lose,” said Wambach, whose textbook perfect pass set up Lauren Cheney’s goal against North Korea, the Americans’ first of the tournament.
While Wambach seemed to be pressing at times against Colombia, neither Sundhage nor her teammates are all that concerned. They’re not going to tell her to stop shooting, either.
“She didn’t put her chances away today, but she will before the tournament ends,” Sundhage said of Wambach. “She will score a goal, sooner or later.”
Besides, the Americans would rather look at the positive side. Their five goals have come from five different players, including Rachel Buehler, a defender. Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Cheney all got their first goals in the World Cup — and Rapinoe almost scored two more, banging a shot off the crossbar against Colombia and having one waved off against North Korea on a debatabl e possession call.
And the Americans are getting — creating — chances. As long as they keep doing that, they’re confident the ball will go in at some point.
“We’ve had five different goal scorers, which is a great thing. It’s a huge positive,” Heather O’Reilly said. “The goals will come.”