Lyon, France (CNN)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.
But England, losers in a major semifinal for the third successive time, were 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 ranked teams in the world certainly did. It was frantic, it was high-octane and it was a magnificent advert for the game.
The atmosphere was wild at times. 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 as the USWNT reached a third successive final.
The announcement of the team hinted that this was going to be an exhilarating night. Megan Rapinoe, the match winner in both the last-16 and quarterfinal ties, started on the substitutes’ bench, to the surprise of many.
After much of the pre-match talk centered on Lucy Bronze going head-to-head with Rapinoe it was Press the England player – dubbed the best in the world by her manager Phil Neville – had to shackle.
Though unexpected, were Jill Ellis’ reasons tactical it was understandable given that Rapinoe, after three ACL injuries, hasn’t the pace or endurance to deal with Bronze’s lung-busting darts down the flank for 90 minutes.
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 line-up in the two knockout matches. Again, the US’ game plan worked, though in the closing stages the USWNT had to hold on.
England also made changes. England’s 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 where both keepers made brilliant saves.
Alyssa Naeher, a player who has had to withstand much criticism this tournament, played her part in victory – 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 a brilliant 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 last 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.
As much as 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 Lavell 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 wonderful reflex save.
But with England gathering momentum after White’s strike, Morgan gave her side the lead with a close-range header after Lindsey 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 renowned fondness of the English 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 her 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, 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 Becky 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 if her team could have done any more to reach a first final, she lachrymosely replied: „Score.“