USWNT's next challenge: Replace the irreplaceable Rapinoe, Holiday

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USWNT's next challenge: Replace the irreplaceable Rapinoe, Holiday
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Eventually, the United States muscled its way into the quarterfinals of the Women's World Cup on Monday, delivering its fourth unconvincing performance in as many games in a 2-0 win over 10-woman Colombia in Edmonton. But if the result in was ultimately favorable, the collateral damage going forward is severe.

On Friday in Ottawa, the U.S. will face China – the since-weakened opponents from the 1999 final, when the Americans won their last World Cup on penalties. And they will have to do so without Lauren Holiday and Megan Rapinoe, thanks to the tournament's harsh rules on automatic suspensions following two yellow cards in any two games through the quarterfinals. Both of them will be out against the Chinese, courtesy of yellows incurred in the first half on Monday.

[Women's World Cup: Latest news | Scores and Schedule | Group standings]

Holiday was rightly booked for following through into an opponent's ankle with her cleats out in a standing challenge. Rapinoe was then cautioned for a lighter foul, a hip check to move a Colombian off the ball, but was likely penalized for her accumulation of fouls up to that point.

While China is just about the softest opponent the Americans could ask for at this stage of the tournament – with the other quarterfinals featuring the likes of Germany, France, Canada and likely Japan – they will be hampered by the losses.

On the offensive side of the ball, Holiday and Rapinoe have been the USA's best players in the tournament. The back line, of course, has been stellar, but it's been Rapinoe's flair and Holiday's understated efficiency that have forged the bulk of what few chances the attack has produced. While the vaunted strikers have sputtered only slowly into action, their peers on the line behind them have shoved them all through to this point.

Megan Rapinoe has been one of the few consistent attacking threats. (The Canadian Press via AP)
Megan Rapinoe has been one of the few consistent attacking threats. (The Canadian Press via AP)

In the Americans' opening game, Rapinoe scored twice in the 3-1 win over Australia. In the third game, she delivered the corner kick on which Abby Wambach scored the lone goal that beat Nigeria. Against Colombia, Rapinoe's splendid outlet pass into space for Alex Morgan won the USA its first penalty and an ejection of goalkeeper Catalina Perez, who took down Morgan in the box – although Wambach missed from the spot. Rapinoe was then denied an obvious penalty herself before winning another one, which Carli Lloyd converted.

Holiday is less the whimsical playmaker high up the field, like Rapinoe, instead sitting deeper and connecting the lines with shorter passes. Rapinoe's quick, low ball into Morgan, who had found a rare pocket of space in the Colombian box, teed the striker up for the shot, which surprised substitute goalkeeper Stefany Castano at her near post. Earlier, Holiday had also created one of the few other chances, albeit with some luck, when she dinked a high ball across the box for Morgan to almost head into goal.

If you're keeping count, Rapinoe and Holiday either scored, assisted or won the penalty on five out of the six goals the U.S. has scored at this World Cup.

Their absences will leave head coach Jill Ellis with a complicated puzzle to solve. There are simply no like-for-like replacements for Rapinoe and Holiday, for their creativity and reliability, respectively. Presuming she sticks with her stodgy 4-4-2 formation, Ellis can start Christen Press, Morgan Brian or the criminally underused Heather O'Reilly on the right while moving Tobin Heath into Rapinoe's slot on the left. Or, less likely, she can play Sydney Leroux or Kelly O'Hara on the left side.

But more acute still is the Holiday-shaped hole in the middle. With Carli Lloyd still searching feverishly for her dominant form of the last two years, Holiday had a calming effect in settling a central midfield that is often overrun in this formation. Brian can play in her natural position there but is very green at this level. Shannon Boxx has the opposite problem – she's 37 and hasn't played much of late.

Julie Johnston is naturally a central midfielder, but pulling her out of the heart of the defense, where she has been unimpeachable alongside Becky Sauerbrunn, could well be tactical suicide. Johnston's backups are Christie Rampone, who, days from her 40th birthday, is finally being slowed by injuries, and the equally dawdling Whitney Engen. Moving Johnston, in other words, would weaken the Americans in yet another position.

There are only imperfect solutions. And, you would imagine, gratitude on the part of the U.S. that it isn't facing the likes of France or Germany just yet. It will, however, see one of them in the semifinals should it manage to eliminate China.

On the other hand, there should be dread. Because, in a tournament during which they have scarcely impressed, the Americans are about to face their toughest challenge yet. The Chinese are fast and technical and are playing better than any team the USA has played thus far. And when it does, it'll be ill-equipped for the task.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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