World Games Semifinal: US Finds Stride in Win Over Colombia

The US capitalized on Colombian errors in the elimination match.

United States' Claire Chastain makes a sideline scoring catch in the semifinals at the 2022 World Games.
United States’ Claire Chastain makes a sideline scoring catch in the semifinals at the 2022 World Games. Photo: Kevin Leclaire — Ultiphotos.com

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BIRMINGHAM, AL — In a rematch of the 2017 World Games final, the United States rode a fiery first half performance to a tense 13-11 victory over Colombia. The victory cements a sixth consecutive American appearance in the tournament final, where they have won the previous four gold medals.

Colombia emerged from pool play on the strength of the tournaments steadiest offense and most opportunistic defense. Both qualities were in short supply at the start of the semifinal. The Americans scored with relative ease on their opening possession, leaning on their men – in this case, Dylan Freechild and Nate Goff – to win matchups in isolation. It was the start of a lot of smooth sailing for the American offense. Neither their own early-tournament demons nor Colombia’s defenders were able to slow them down for most of the game.

The approach taken by the Colombian O-line against the US resembled their approach to pool play: many small passes, lots of horizontal movement, an embrace of skinny reset windows, and up-tempo red zone work. It might have been a winning strategy again in the semifinal. As with any offensive approach, however, it must rest on a foundation of well-executed throws and catches. That foundation cracked. Between the US defenders’ making it a point to hound under cuts and the US sidelines’ making it a point to be as noisy as humanly possible, Colombia were playing offense in adversity from the outset, and they made mistakes. Maria Forero and Ximena Montaña dropped the disc on consecutive points, and the United States converted both chances to take a 3-0 lead.

“A lot of the game plan was: play them tight and don’t give them a lot of space – because they’re so good at finding space,” said Claire Chastain. “They have such good throws that if you give them two or three yards in any part of the field, they’re going to find it. We wanted to play really tight and sort of make those release valve options not options anymore. That did lead to high pressure, higher-stall situations.”

Finally, on their third offensive possession, Colombia were able to string together enough throws and catches to press ahead of the defense. The catalyst was Jonathan Cantor, who looked almost as good in the semifinal as during his brilliant turn against Australia one day earlier. He ate up forty yards of open side space on four touches before throwing the assist. Cantor had been a designated alternate until a few days before the tournament, and it is hard to see how he can possibly have made more of the sudden opportunity. His combination of turnover-free play and quick, unpredictable movement – he bounces from spot to spot with the energy of an excited electron – has been a major boon for Colombia.

Having earned a two-break lead, the Americans were in no mood to let Colombia back into the match. Memories of teamwide sloppy offense from pool play faded before their assertive and controlled first half performance. Freechild and Jimmy Mickle played clean games as distributors. Goff, Opi Payne, and Sarah Meckstroth continued to create matchup problems downfield. Carolyn Finney dialed in her deep shots. Jack Williams stepped into a feature role, generating movement for the entire offense.

In addition to all of that, they held the ultimate ace up their sleeve in Claire Trop. She is a comet. Who can follow her orbit across the field? Certainly, no one on Colombia found a way to keep pace with her. Her first score (of four), a flying layout at the on the weak-side sideline to nab a low around throw, was exceptional – and not only for the rare talent and athleticism it takes to make a play like that at full speed. It was also exceptional in the sense that it was an exception for Trop to have to make a difficult catch in the semifinal. She spent most of the semifinal eight to ten yards clear of her nearest defender: simple completions to her were the rule.

Valeria Cárdenas did her level best to keep Colombia close. A timely block prevented a Colombian miscommunication error from turning into a third US break. Later, she shocked the defense and provoked a reflexive murmur of admiration with a blistering no-look scoober assist to Simon Ramírez. But from the O-line, there was little she could do to help Colombia close the gap, and they entered the second half at a 7-4 deficit.

Another error from Colombia provided the occasion for a third US break. American defenders and Colombian resets, five or six in all, flooded the same reset area within ten yards of the thrower. A turnover was virtually inevitable amid the confusion. Payne and Grant Lindsley were only too happy to take the easy score.

Offenses dominated the next five points. The US scored quickly on two pull plays. Hucks from Finney and Chastain found their respective targets in Freechild and Williams with very little in the way of visible defensive effort to break up either connection. Meanwhile, Yina Cartagena sparkled for Colombia. In classic Cartagena fashion, she operated within a foot of the sideline to get free and lace a continue throw to the end zone for Jose Jiménez within that same narrow band. Manu Cárdenas scored a goal when an absolutely perfect Cartagena forehand showed her the open space. And then, taking a page out of the US playbook, Colombia called for a first throw deep look to her. (It was, curiously, Colombia’s only huck of the game.)

Down 10-7, Colombia finally found the grip to begin to claw their way back into the match. A red zone miscommunication for the US set Colombia up a for 70-yard counter-attack to earn the first of four necessary breaks. A Lindsley overthrow in the lane set up the second. Suddenly, the comfortable United States buffer had shrunk to a single point.

The US were prepared for the late push. “A lot of the talk before this [game] was we want go out and start strong, and if they punch back, we don’t go down and we don’t let that rattle us, and we keep punching,” said Chastain. “I think we did that really well.”

At 11-10, sheer effort from Mickle and Chastain was the only reason Colombia would not have another look at a break. Mickle thundered up the weak sideline and flew for a massive bid to save possession just outside of the attacking end zone. Two resets later, he saw that Chastain had separation on the open side at the front of the goal box and sent a forehand toward the cone. The throw’s flat shape, however, was not going to keep it in bounds, leaving Chastain to do the job. Planting her foot at the sideline and fixing her eyes on the disc, she went into a tree-fall bid and just managed to secure it while maintaining contact with the ground.

Colombia responded with a Medellín Revolution special – Cárdenas, Cárdenas, and Cartagena dancing together in the red zone – to stave off elimination for at least another point.

The US went back to their look from the first point of the game, with some slight changes to the personnel. It was Williams who took the cut for the long open-side forehand. Colombia, however, were much more prepared to contest the pass this time around. Andres Ramírez and Williams both set their feet to attack the high disc where it floated near the sideline. Williams made the catch, but contact from Ramírez knocked him off course in the air, and he landed out of bounds. The body control error was unfortunate for Colombia, because it was far from certain whether Williams would have been able to get a toe down before his own momentum took him wide of the line.

At first, Ramírez did not agree that he had committed the force-out foul. He and Williams began to discuss the play with the Game Advisor. It seemed as though they would not be able to see eye-to-eye, and that the disc would return to the thrower on the contested call. Then the situation took a truly bizarre, 21st century twist. It turned out that Khalif El-Salaam had been filming the point from the sidelines from his cell phone. With proof in hand, he entered the discussion and showed both Williams and Ramírez his footage. The video evidence was clear, and there was nothing for Ramírez to do but acknowledge the foul. Play restarted, and Chastain scored the disc at the front cone for the victory.

It was the best game yet for the US side, and it could not have come in a bigger moment. They have been growing stronger and more tight-knit every day. “The team cohesion and the amount of work that we’ve done on building a team identity around this group of people in this week has been really helpful for our mental resiliency against a very good team,” said Chastain. Australia will have a whale of a job to try to unbalance them in the final.

In spite of their uneven performance and, ultimately, heartbreaking loss in the semifinal, Colombia showed very well at the World Games. The frisbee community in Colombia – indeed, the entire nation – can be proud of the team’s heart, preparation, and energy. The support for the team was on full display at the stadium. They understand that the end of their gold medal hopes only came on the back of a few small moments. “All the points at that level are just intensity and the capacity to be aware of all of the things happening in the field – and taking advantage of the little mistakes. [The United States] did such a good job of that, and that is the reason they are in the final,” said Jiménez.

Surely, Colombia will contend again in three years’ time.

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