[USA-FRANCE ANALYSIS] Once again, the U.S. women’s team proved that just as important as a game plan is a resolve to prevail no matter what. Once again, Abby Wambach proved that the bigger the occasion, the bigger she plays.
Bottled up by a quicker, more polished French team for long stretches of their Women’s World Cup semifinal Wednesday in Moenchengladbach, the Americans used a pair of substitutions and a tactical tweak to score two late goals in three minutes and win, 3-1. Wambach headed the winning goal in the 79th minute and soon thereafter Alex Morgan iced the victory cake to send the Americans into their third WWC final and first in 12 years against Japan in Frankfurt on Sunday.
Up until the late stages, despite trailing, 1-0, after a goal in the ninth minute by Lauren Cheney, France had looked better and sharper on the day. Playmaker Louisa Necib directed a French attack that threatened constantly and eventually piled up a 25-11 in shots and forced keeper Hope Solo into eight saves. Sonia Bompastor also clanked the crossbar with a free kick in the 33rd minute to punctuate the French ascendancy.
As had been the case in the quarterfinal against Brazil, the U.S. passed poorly and moved sluggishly, yet while the French turned those turnovers into opportunities, they were unable to get in front, though they did draw even at 1-1.
France equalized 10 minutes into the second half when a Bompastor cross eluded Solo and bounced high into the net; right away, head coach Pia Sundhage made the first of two essential substitutions, sending on forward Morgan in place of Amy Rodriguez. Morgan’s energy and range opened up space in the attacking third but not until Sundhage sent on Megan Rapinoe in the 65th minute to play left mid and moved Cheney inside to take Carli Lloyd’s spot did the Americans gain traction in midfield.
Sundhage gave some credit to her coaches for the tactical switch as well as heaped praise on the will of her players, who were laboring for much of the game.
“We didn’t play well today,” said Sundhage. “France played well. But the team found a way to win and that’s the great thing about being the coach of this team. I made some tactical errors today, but my coaching staff gave me a hand and switched the midfield around just when France were playing their best football.”
The USA had taken a surprising 1-0 lead after sustained French possession when right mid Heather O’Reilly flipped sides and raced around Laura Georges to center a ball from near the endline. Wambach was calling for the ball at the back post, and Rodriguez had the penalty spot covered, but instead O’Reilly aimed for the near post, where Cheney’s deft re-direction steered the ball across keeper Berangere Sapowicz and into the net.
With an early lead, the Americans tried to play keep-away and sniff out opportunities to strike a second goal, but France -- which had scored in the 88th minute to equalize against England in its quarterfinal before winning on penalties -- confidently applied pressure and instead forced the Americans to defend. Playing essentially with five midfielders in support of striker Marie-Laure Delie, who was replaced at halftime by Eugenie Le Sommer, France wove webs of attacking moves that were desperately fended off by the U.S. backline, which bent but seldom permitted a clean breakthrough.
Rapinoe’s savvy on the left and Cheney’s calm poise in the middle churned over the momentum in favor of the USA, and, permitted some breathing room, the defense regained its stability. The corner kick that produced the winning goal came when the subs pressured the French back line; Morgan chased a back pass and Rapinoe intercepted a poor clearance by Sapowicz to hit a far-post cross that cleared Wambach, who gave Bompastor a nudge that enraged the French left back as the ball sailed over their heads.
O’Reilly collected the ball and banged a cross off a defender to win the corner. Cheney hit a looping outswinger to the back post, where Wambach powered past Laure Lepailleur to head from just a few yards out. The reeling French, stunned by the sudden change in fortune, were knocked out in the 82nd minute when the USA converted a turnover with a superb one-touch sequence.
Captain Christie Rampone intercepted a stray ball and lofted it into midfield for Wambach, who guided it square to the left for Rapinoe to flick forward. Morgan, who’d been caught offside twice since coming on, this time angled her run along the line of defenders to collect, and looked up to Sapowicz coming off her line despite several defenders swarming toward the U.S. forward.
As Sapowicz lunged, Morgan lifted the ball over the keeper and it floated into the net on the bounce, a fitting finish of class and composure that rewarded yet another test case of spirit and fortitude.