A comfortable if close 1-0 victory over China Friday advanced the USA into the Women’s World Cup semifinals. The USA plays Germany Tuesday.
Carli Lloyd’s header in the 51st minute was all the separated the teams on the scoreboard, but the Americans dominated play for long stretches and keeper Hope Solo wasn’t severely tested. Personnel changes raised the energy level and a more aggressive approach all over field bottled up China for most of the game.
Here are three takeaways from the best USA performance in most categories at this World Cup:
1. A-Rod revives sluggish attack.
Deprived of Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday because of accumulated yellow cards, and mindful of Abby Wambach’s mediocre form, Coach Jill Ellis switched up three players and each move paid off big. Amy Rodriguez took over as a target striker, Kelly O’Hara took up one wide midfield slot, and Morgan Brian got her first Women’s World Cup start in the middle.
Though she fluffed a great chance in the second minute, scuffing a shot badly when put clean through by captain Carli Lloyd, Rodriguez sweated through her shoes until she came off in the 86th minute. She collected balls crisply and efficiently in the final third and pulled defenders all over the place with her dribbles and angled runs. When China won the ball she pressured relentlessly and helped force so many turnovers rarely did the Chinese complete a pass over the midfield line.
Having played only 32 minutes -- as a sub for Brian in the second group match, a frustrating 0-0 tie with Sweden -- previously in the tournament, a well-rested Rodriguez fired out of the blocks full of energy and slackened only slightly before being replaced. Her range and work rate typified a raised level of intensity displayed by the U.S., which outshot China, 17-6, and smothered just about attempt of its opponents to build out of the back.
2. JJ is A-1.
Facing an entire team of World Cup rookies, centerback Julie Johnston outclassed just about everyone on the other team in her fifth straight WWC 90-minute performance. Once again, she was a force all over the field.
During a scramble, she put a shot on goal that beat the keeper but was cleared. Her lobbed diagonal ball from midfield, after left back Meghan Klingenberg cleverly switched the ball to her side on a free kick, curled perfectly for Lloyd to crash into the net. Occasionally, she lofted a long ball out of the back, more often she delivered a crisp pass to one of her outside backs or into a teammate’s feet in midfield.
Often she played the role of sweeper, leaving centerback partner Becky Sauerbrunn to contest the aerial balls aimed at Chinese striker Wang Shenshen. Both of them stepped forward at times to cut out entry passes with an aggressive header or sharp slide tackle, and twice Johnston got in a vital tackle or clearance when a momentary gap appeared in the back line.
3. The other Morgan played a blinder.
Brian started against Sweden on the right side of midfield and while playing pretty well couldn’t use her array of talents fully. To thwart China, Brian roamed in front of the back four, enabling Lloyd to get into the attack frequently and O’Hara and Tobin Heath to go at people from wide positions. O’Hara and right back Ali Krieger dominated their flank by working combinations and overlaps and stifling China with high pressure.
By chasing down errant passes and vacuuming up second balls, Brian smothered China in the middle third. She ranged from side to side effectively and blindsided China several times on double-teams. While Lloyd played a solid game and scored a spectacular goal, she occasionally gave the ball away but Brian was usually there to help win it back.
Busy, fluid, and dynamic midfield play against China contrasted sharply with rather stagnant displays in the first four games, and gives Ellis a great problem to have heading into an epic semifinal against Germany; how to fix six or seven talented midfielders -- Heather O’Reilly also got her first taste of the tournament as a late sub -- into four slots?