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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Colombia (narrowly) and France (easily) join the World Cup quarterfinals

Kenza Dali, right, scored France’s second goal.

By Rory Smith and Andrew Das

On the far side of the field, Catalina Usme tore away, sprinting toward the fans. Her Colombia teammates followed in her wake, eating up the ground in the rush to close the distance, to catch her to celebrate the goal that would soon take the country past Jamaica and into the first Women’s World Cup quarterfinal in Colombia’s history.

Linda Caicedo was not among their number. When Usme had coolly converted Ana María Guzmán’s cross to give Colombia the lead in Melbourne, Australia, on Tuesday, Caicedo had turned the other way, toward the coaching area and the substitutes’ bench. She had tensed her arms, hanging low by her sides, clenched her fists, and roared: an expression not of joy or delirium but sheer, unbridled relief, the sound of something being released.

Caicedo’s emergence at this World Cup has not exactly been a surprise. She is only 18, but her talent has been so obvious, and so prodigious, for so long that she is anything but an overnight sensation. She has long been earmarked as the next big thing: for Colombia, for South America, and increasingly for women’s soccer as a whole.

Hers is the sort of promise that attracts almost universal attention. Caicedo has, for years, been courted by major European teams: Bayern Munich and Barcelona and Chelsea and the rest. This year, she and her mother spent several weeks in Europe, watching games and assessing potential suitors.

In the end, Caicedo gave her blessing to Real Madrid. Madrid, the world’s biggest men’s club, pitched her on the idea that she would be the cornerstone of its attempts to establish a similar prominence for its women’s team. When the club had first made its interest known, Caicedo was not old enough to drive in Spain.

It is not, then, so much that Caicedo is the breakout star of this tournament; she had, in all the ways that matter, broken out long ago. Instead, it is probably better cast as something closer to an inauguration: her goal against Germany, in particular, acted as confirmation that she is the standard-bearer for the coming generation of women’s soccer.

This has been a tournament defined by an overturning of calcified orders. Most immediately, that has been in terms of geography and primacy. The United States has been dethroned. Canada was knocked out by Nigeria. Germany was eliminated in favor of Morocco. The tectonic shifts have had the effect of flattening, broadening the game’s landscape.

But there has been a generational shift playing out in Australia and New Zealand, too. As the sun has set on the likes of Megan Rapinoe and Christine Sinclair, Alex Morgan and Marta, so their apparent successors have bloomed and flourished: a group of players in their late teens and early 20s, bookmarked at one end by 16-year-old Italian Giulia Dragoni and the other by Hinata Miyazawa, the 23-year-old Golden Boot apparent.

The bright spots for the United States all fell into that pool: Sophia Smith, Naomi Girma and Trinity Rodman. Melchie Dumornay, the teenage Haitian, stood out even when cast against England’s highly polished midfield, one that included the explosive — for good and for ill — Lauren James, 21. Mary Fowler has shouldered much of Australia’s burden in the absence of Sam Kerr. Yet Caicedo stands front and center.

There is a pressure attendant in that, of course. “When Linda shines, we shine,” as her teammate Jorelyn Carabalí put it. Caicedo is adamant that she does not feel inhibited, that she tries still to play as she did “in the neighborhood, when I was a kid.” But she is human; she knows her country’s “dream” is reliant to some extent on her.

She may already have accomplished enough to last a lifetime, but that does not mean her youth is irrelevant. A couple of days after Colombia’s opening game, a 2-0 win against South Korea, she collapsed on the field during a training session, clutching her chest. The leaders of Colombia’s soccer federation downplayed the incident, attributing it to the fact that she was simply “very tired.” “What happened was just a symptom of all the stress and physical demands,” a representative said, as if that were not worrying in the slightest. “She is well and all is back to normal.”

Caicedo has always been able to meet whatever challenge she has encountered. That comes at a cost. Her roar after Colombia’s goal, the one that made it another milestone passed, was a necessary release valve, the expulsion of all of the pressure that comes with being the next big thing.

France ousts Morocco, scoring early and often

Making it to midnight was always going to be a tall order for the Women’s World Cup’s last Cinderella team, Morocco. It turns out its tournament was over, for all intents and purposes, by 9:30 p.m. Tuesday in Adelaide, Australia.

France had the final round-of-16 game well in hand by then, after goals by Kadidiatou Diani, Kenza Dali and Eugénie Le Sommer in the game’s first 23 minutes. Morocco gave it a go after that, eventually losing by 4-0, but its World Cup was effectively over after three early defensive lapses led to three early goals.

Diani had a hand in all three of France’s goals in the first half, scoring the first and creating the other two. She now has four goals in the World Cup. Le Sommer has three. Le Sommer added her second goal in the 70th minute, and France could have had even more on a night when they saw more open chances than Morocco did chances of any kind.

All four French goals came from players who were unmarked, a sign that while Morocco had made great strides in its first World Cup — recording its first goals, its first wins and its first trip to the knockouts — it still has a lot to learn if it hopes to run with the world’s best teams regularly over 90 minutes.

The victory was the latest sign of a tournament snapping back into form after a run of surprises, upsets and parity. Seven of the eight quarterfinalists won their first-round groups, and the one that did not — Spain — was on everyone’s list of title contenders.

France, with 10 goals in its past two games, will face Australia, refreshed by Sam Kerr’s return, on Saturday. With England facing Colombia in the other game on this side of the knockout-round bracket, a first-time World Cup finalist is assured.

FIFA Women’s World Cup

Quarterfinals (all times Eastern Standard Time)

Today’s Game

Spain vs. Netherlands (9 p.m., FOX)

Friday’s Game

Japan vs. Sweden (3:30 a.m., FOX)

Saturday’s Games

Australia vs. France (3 a.m., FOX)

England vs. Colombia (6:30 a.m., FOX)

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