For the ability to rise to the occasion, for the aptitude to turn a blind eye to pressure and produce on the grandest of stages, there is still no team quite like the US as the defending champion saw off a talented England team 2-1 to reach the Women’s World Cup final.
England’s Ellen White had negated Christen Press’s early opener, but on her 30th birthday, Alex Morgan headed home before the break to score what proved to be the winner.
Though challenged by the world’s finest teams in the knockouts, the USWNT remains firmly on its perch. But England will be kept awake at night by thoughts of what might have been: what if a White goal had not been ruled out for offside, what if captain Steph Houghton had not missed a penalty in the final 10 minutes.
Though England must now come to terms with losing in a major semifinal for the third successive time, the US can celebrate reaching its third successive World Cup final, and it’s goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher who will be remembered as the hero, thanks to a wonderful first-half save and for holding onto Houghton’s spot kick.
Becky Sauerbrunn, whose clumsy challenge on White led to the penalty, later revealed that such was her relief on seeing Naeher gather Houghton’s effort, she told her goalkeeper that she loved her. Many of her compatriots will feel the same.
“She shone tonight. She was the brightest,” US coach Jill Ellis said after the match.
“I give her full credit. She’s a tremendous person. People care about her; people have her back; people are starting to see glimpses of what I see every day in training.”
England was not quite at the US’ level, and the frustration of missing opportunities to level was evident when Millie Bright was awarded a red card in the dying minutes.
Unless the Netherlands or Sweden – the second semifinal takes place Wednesday – can achieve the unexpected in Sunday’s final in the same stadium, the US will retain its title, accentuating the country’s dominance of the women’s game.
It is rare for such an anticipated match to live up to its promise, but this semifinal between the No. 1 and No. 3 teams in the world certainly did. It was frantic, it was high-octane, and it was a magnificent advert for the game.
At times, the atmosphere was wild. The majority of the 53,512 fans were rooting for the three-time winner, and it was the Americans, who have flown to France in huge numbers, who were celebrating at the end. For England’s players, there were tears.
“We’ll have to allow 24 to 48 hours for this to sink in, for them to get over the disappointed,” England coach Phil Neville said, adding that his team’s focus would eventually switch to Saturday’s third-place playoff.
“No words that I can say to them [Tuesday] can make them feel better. Elite sport means that on Saturday, in Nice, we’ve got to go out there, and we’ve got to produce a performance.”
The announcement of the team hinted that this was going to be an exhilarating night. To the surprise of many, Megan Rapinoe, the match winner in both the last-16 and quarterfinal ties, started on the substitutes’ bench.
After much of the prematch talk centered on Lucy Bronze going head-to-head with Rapinoe, it was Press whom the England player – dubbed the best in the world by Neville – had to shackle.
Though it was unexpected, Ellis later explained Rapinoe had a slight hamstring strain and that the forward was on the bench in case the match ended in a penalty shootout. “There was an outside chance that Pinoe could take a penalty,” Ellis said.
Ellis also started with Lindsey Horan, the US’ most imposing midfielder and the NWSL’s 2018 player of the year but absent from the starting lineup in the two knockout matches. Again, the US’ game plan worked, though in the closing stages, it had to hold on.
England also made changes. First-choice goalkeeper Karen Bardsley did not feature because of a hamstring injury, so Carly Telford stepped in to make her second major international appearance. Arguably, Telford should have done better in stopping both headers, but it was a match in which both keepers made brilliant saves.
Naeher, who has had to withstand much criticism this tournament, played her part, producing a stunning first-half save from a Keira Walsh thunderbolt and, of course, stopping Houghton’s penalty, but in truth, it was a poor effort from England’s defender.
No Rapinoe, no problem
In an entertaining first half, Rapinoe’s replacement Press opened the scoring, heading home from a Tobin Heath cross.
Rapinoe has been the focus of attention over the past few weeks, for her match-winning exploits and for agitating the US President, but those who have followed the US in this tournament will have been aware that it is Heath who has been the biggest threat down the flanks in France, and so she was once again in Lyon.
While Heath has been piercing through defensive lines throughout this competition, England’s White has been lethal in front of goal. With her first chance, the England striker struck from close range for her sixth goal in five games after a fine cross from Beth Mead.
The leveler had come during a period of US dominance, with Rose Lavelle in particular testing England’s rookie goalkeeper with a number of shots from distance; one effort from the edge of the box in the 24th minute forced Telford into a brilliant reflex save.
But with England gathering momentum after White’s strike, Morgan gave her side the lead with a close-range header after Horan beautifully picked her out from a crowd. On her birthday, the striker celebrated by sipping from an imaginary cup of tea, a nod to the English’s renowned fondness for the beverage.
But in White, England has a special talent – her manager has compared her to England men’s greats Alan Shearer and Michael Owen – and after a cute through ball from Jill Scott in the second half, she coolly placed an effort beyond Naeher.
The striker posed with what is now her trademark celebration, but the referee called VAR into play, and though the margin was gossamer thin, replays did show that the striker was offside. Just.
It will no doubt be a talking point, and some will almost certainly argue that the goal should have been awarded – but England did have another fine opportunity to level, which it did not take advantage of.
It was White in the mix once again. Falling inside the box after contact with Sauerbrunn, the striker earned her team a penalty after another VAR review. It was the slightest of touches from the US defender, but enough to bring White down when through on goal.
Houghton stepped up, but she struck straight at the US goalkeeper.
White was in tears during a BBC interview in the immediate aftermath of the match. Asked whether her team could have done any more to reach a first final, the lachrymose striker replied: “Score.”