No Rapinoe, no problem.
First things first.
Megan Rapinoe was not benched for Tuesday’s semifinal match against England due to her now months-old statements about skipping a potential White House visit. That’s fake news.
Though the American camp was decidedly tight-lipped in the lead up to the contest, it’s clear that Rapinoe sat out due to a hamstring issue. The severity might be unknown, but she’s been listed as day to day, so it’s anyone’s guess as to whether she’ll be ready for Sunday’s final against the reigning European champions from the Netherlands. She’s played a lot of minutes in this World Cup, and Rapinoe plays the game hard. I’m not surprised that she needed a little rest before their final test this weekend. It might seem scary to leave the U.S. player who has created one hundred percent of the team’s offense in the first two matches of the knockout stage, but coach Jill Ellis has played the substitution game nearly perfectly thus far. It would be hard to question her resting Rapinoe if she wasn’t feeling ready to go. If there’s a single strength to this American side, it’s that you can’t simply mark one or two dangerous offensive players. Goal scoring can come from anywhere, as Rapinoe’s replacement Christen Press proved in the tenth minute.
With the entire English defense pressing toward the near post, Kelly O’Hara’s brilliant crossing ball hung just long enough for Press to head it into the back of the net above the outstretched arms of Carly Telford. That’s the third consecutive knockout stage match that the U.S. took first blood before the tenth minute had expired. The excitement on the USWNT bench would be short-lived, however. Much like they did against Spain, the Americans perhaps took their foot off the gas too soon after an early goal. Just nine minutes later England equalized on a brilliant strike by Ellen White in traffic. The toe touch redirect skittered past Alyssa Naeher. Unlike the equalizer in the Spain match, however, there was no miscue by the American defense, just a perfect feed across the box from Beth Mead and an onside run between two defenders that caught the U.S. flat-footed.
It wouldn’t take long for the Americans to regain their advantage, with leading goal scorer Alex Morgan once again heading the ball to goal on a lovely cross from Lindsay Horan. The teacup celebration that followed is already a global meme, much to the consternation of Brits everywhere. Well played, Alex Morgan, well played. This time, the lead would hold, but not without some stressful moments.
It looked as if the Lionesses had equalized yet again in the sixty-seventh minute, but the goal was overturned on VAR, showing White to be just ahead of the defenders. Then, in the eighty-third minute, Becky Sauerbrunn was shown the yellow for clipping the ankle of White. The resulting penalty kick was England’s brightest chance to equalize, but it wasn’t to be. The strike was clumsy, and with Alyssa Naeher moving to her right on the touch, it never stood a chance. England has been awarded the most penalty kicks in this World Cup, but squandered the lionesses share of them.
Moments later, all hope for England were dashed as Millie Bright went high and spikes up on a challenge to Alex Morgan. While the aggressive play was probably enough for her to be shown a straight red card, it didn’t matter. Bright had already been shown yellow (again on a challenge to Morgan), so was sent off, and England’s hopes went with her. England was stuck playing a woman down in their final ten minutes of life in the World Cup, and the Americans deftly dispossessed England each time they advanced and ran out the clock.
Some commentators have lambasted Jill Ellis for dropping into the defensive 5-4-1 alignment with almost twenty minutes to play. It’s a fair criticism. The USWNT looks best when they control the middle of the field and bring attackers forward. But it’s hard to argue with the match results after a win against a top-ranked team. It might not be the most beautiful soccer that these women play, but it’s great to see the team evolving the strategy against more dangerous opposition as the tournament goes forward. Allowing a swift counterattack to threaten Alyssa Naeher in the waning moments would simply be foolish.
There’s only one match left to play, Sunday’s final against the Netherlands. The reigning European champions have looked fantastic in the knockout stage, allowing only one goal in three matches. While the Netherlands don’t have a dominant goal scorer, they do have Sherida Spitse, who leads the tournament in assists and always seems to be part of the buildup when they find the back of the net. It should be an exceptionally tough challenge for the Americans and a thrilling conclusion to the World Cup.
Image Source: AP Images/Francisco Seco