To reach its fourth Women’s World Cup final, the USA has followed a formula simple to express and difficult to implement: grow stronger as does the opposition.
In the group phase, the Americans were efficient if not effervescent, and scored just one goal combined against Sweden and Nigeria after hitting three past Australia in the opener. They improved slightly but not dramatically to down Colombia, 2-0, in the round of 16, then quickened their tempo and sharpened their edge to beat China in as about a one-sided 1-0 game as you will ever see.
In its semifinal Tuesday, the USA comprehensively overpowered and outclassed Germany, which had seldom looked like the No. 1 team while edging past France in its quarterfinal and sputtered even worse in Montreal. The German attackers were blanketed, their midfielders smothered, and their defenders twisted into knots. Only keeper Nadine Angerer brought her A-game; her teammates played bit parts in a B-movie as the USA triumphed, 2-0.
Of the many aspects of this game dominated by the USA, here are three takeaways of by far the team’s best game in this competition:
1. JJ got off lucky, but this happens all the time.
The penalty-kick miss by Celia Sasic, who drove her kick low a foot wide of the post in the 59th minute of a 0-0 game, illustrates why the rules empower the referee to send off a player whose foul denies the opposition an obvious goal-scoring opportunity. Penalty kicks are not slam dunks, especially in big games.
Many coaches, players, fans, and yes journalists abhor the “triple jeopardy” by which a team is penalized by a penalty kick, the loss of a player, and suspension for the next game. This wasn’t a borderline DOGSO; after misplaying the bounce as Alexandra Popp surged past her, centerback Julie Johnston yanked her back by the shoulder and Popp went down. Yet Johnston stayed in the game.
Not all that surprisingly, the Germans didn’t protest too vehemently when referee Teadora Albon pulled out a yellow card rather than red. No doubt they’d seen this scenario before, a referee reluctant to send off a player in a high-stakes game for not a brutish foul, but rather one of desperation. Of course, their frustration escalated as keeper Hope Solo – who really should have cautioned as well -- played stalling tricks to delay the kick, and turned to anger when the kick whistled past the post.
Another controversy emerged when Albon awarded a second penalty kick to the U.S. when Alex Morgan sailed through the middle and ran into a shuddering body block; first contact was a foot or so shy of the penalty-area line, but Albon pointed to the spot, and up stepped Carli Lloyd to smack the ball in the opposite direction from Angerer’s dive.
The Germans ultimately experienced their own version of triple jeopardy; they missed a penalty kick, conceded a dubious one that the USA converted, and then couldn't break down a back line ably marshalled by Johnston.
2. Lloyd is on a roll. Again.
By scoring in her third consecutive game, Lloyd has run off another impressive streak of hitting the net. She’s played in a variety of midfield roles during her career, and manned the right side earlier this year to help Morgan Brian adjust to the national team. Sporadically, she’s shown a remarkable prowess at scoring in streaks.
This is her best sustained run in a major tournament, but in past years she’s compiled some remarkable accomplishments:
In 2008, she scored three goals in four games prior to the Olympic Games tournament, then hit the only goal of the gold-medal game against Brazil.
She scored three goals in as many games in 2011, nailed six goals in the first four games of 2012 and in the gold-medal game went one better by scoring both goals in a 2-1 defeat of Japan. Lloyd hit three goals in a five-game span in 2013, then ascended into rarified air by scoring 10 goals in seven consecutive games near the tail end of last year.
So perhaps head coach Jill Ellis wasn’t just blowing smoke prior to the tournament when she said he wasn’t concerned about who would score goals at this Women’s World Cup, with Abby Wambach obviously past her prime and Alex Morgan recovering from a knee contusion. Ellis played all five of her forwards in the group match against Sweden and none of them scored, but Wambach netted a sweet volley in the group finale against Nigeria, after which Lloyd took over.
In the three knockout games Lloyd has converted two penalties, crashed home a header to beat China, and served up the cross by which Kelley O’Hara iced the semi against Germany.
3. O’Hara a prime example of Ellis’ management.
O’Hara, a forward for much of her college and club career, played left back for the USA at the 2012 Olympics but injured her ankle in 2013 and with the emergence of Meghan Klingenberg at that position found herself on the bench after she came back.
“I’m not going to lie,” O’Hara said after a Mothers’ Day friendly against Ireland at Avaya Stadium in San Jose, not far from where she attended college at Stanford. She’d scored 26 goals and won the Hermann Trophy in her senior year. “It’s not the easiest mental battle to go through. It’s definitely an obstacle and a challenge but you have to be resilient and be ready for anything.
“I’m pretty comfortable. As an outside back, Jill expects a lot from us, a high volume from us in general, getting up and back. Obviously, defending is our No. 1 priority, but we’re expected to be very active in the final third as well.”
At the Women's World Cup, O’Hara waited out the first four games without getting a minute of action. Suspensions for Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday left a void in midfield for the quarterfinal against China. O’Hara started at right mid against China and in 60 minutes of action helped the USA dominate on that side of the field.
She was back on the bench at kickoff Tuesday, with Rapinoe and Holiday both restored to the starting lineup. In the 75th minute on Tuesday, Ellis sent her on to replace Tobin Heath, and nine minutes later from the right side she knifed inside to stab home her first international goal in 62 appearances.
Ellis took a lot of criticism for the team’s muddled performances in the group phase, but since then it has not conceded a goal and improved each time. Her handling of O’Hara is one reason why.