- The U.S. didn't miss a beat despite the sudden absence of Megan Rapinoe, scoring early and then holding on late, with Alyssa Naeher's PK heroics preserving a semifinal win over England and clinching a return to the Women's World Cup final.
The U.S. women's national team is heading to another Women's World Cup final after an emotional, up-and-down, 2-1 victory over England in Lyon, France, on Tuesday. After days of sensational British tabloid fodder, this game had a little bit of everything, from puzzling starting lineup decisions to gorgeous goals to dramatic saves to massive VAR decisions to a red card. Ultimately, the U.S. pulled it off—without Megan Rapinoe, no less—by digging into its depth and thriving in the biggest moments.
Heading into the semifinal, the U.S. had scored within the first 12 minutes of every match in this Women's World Cup. Tuesday was no different, as the Americans got off to a fast start. Christen Press, starting in Rapinoe’s place, headed in her first goal of this World Cup in the 10th minute off a perfectly placed Kelley O’Hara cross. England responded nine minutes later, when Ellen White scored her sixth goal of the tournament by slipping a dagger past Alyssa Naeher to equalize. Alex Morgan came off a four-game scoring hiatus and headed in the eventual game-winning goal in the 31st minute, though, and Naeher's heroic penalty save in the 84th minute made sure it stood up to send the Americans through.
Now the U.S. advances to the final on Sunday where it will try to win its second consecutive title. Its opponent is still to be determined, as the Netherlands and Sweden will decide that in Wednesday’s second semifinal.
Until then, here are three thoughts from the Americans thrilling semifinal victory over England:
Press makes Rapinoe's sudden absence moot
Rapinoe did not play against England for reasons that ultimately were cleared up after the match. She didn’t participate in warmups, and U.S. Soccer did not specify before kickoff if she had an injury as it had in previous situations when players like Julie Ertz and Becky Sauerbrunn sat out. This was a shock given Rapinoe has been the heart of this U.S. team throughout the competition. The lavender-haired co-captain scored two goals against Spain, two more against France, was singled out by President Trump on Twitter and has risen to every challenge.
After the game, Rapinoe told FOX that she has a minor hamstring strain and will be ready for Sunday’s final. Cameras caught her sitting on the sideline throughout the game, getting hyped and supporting her teammates. Her on-field absence ended up not mattering much at all though. As is often discussed, the U.S. has two starting rosters folded into one. Press started in place of Rapinoe and filled in seamlessly, scoring a beautiful goal. Rose Lavelle and Lindsey Horan, who was back in the starting lineup for the first time in two games in place of Sam Mewis, controlled the midfield, while O’Hara provided consistent service from the right side.
Rapinoe’s status will be heavily monitored heading into Sunday’s final, but she clearly plans to be there. It would be difficult to imagine her missing that game given what she means to the team, but if there was any question about the U.S. depth, it was tested against England and proved it can make a huge impact.
Lavelle also is nursing a hamstring injury, which she suffered in the second half on Tuesday. She also says she'll be fit for the final, but it's another status worth monitoring over the next few days.
Naeher’s shining moments
Where are all the Naeher haters now? The goalkeeper position was thought to be the biggest question mark for the U.S. heading into the World Cup. That was simply because Naeher was untested in big tournaments and starting in her first Women's World Cup ever. She made a few mistakes to warrant some doubt, like in earlier games against Spain, but she has looked more confident since then. That was especially the case in the semifinal, when she saved Steph Houghton's penalty kick in the 84th minute, which would have tied the game 2-2 and likely forced extra time.
She had a save of an equal magnitude right after Morgan's eventual game-winner, sprawling to her left to deny Keira Walsh of what would've been a goal-of-the-tournament contender.
Given the widespread skepticism, and with former U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo literally looking down upon her every game from her perch while working for the BBC during the World Cup, she was going to need a big save to essentially prove herself. Not to her team, but to everybody else. Naeher made some clutch stops against France in the quarterfinal, and was big in the the first half against England, but her shining moment came when she owned that England PK–no matter how weakly it was hit.
“What a freaking stop,” U.S. manager Jill Ellis said on the FOX broadcast after the game.
Added Morgan: “She saved our ass.”
That's how you celebrate a birthday
On her 30th birthday, Morgan scored what wound up being the decisive goal. It was her first goal since scoring five in the Americans’ opening match against Thailand, and it puts her ahead of White for the golden boot lead, due to the tiebreaker of her having more assists. Morgan celebrated in style, pretending to sip some tea with her pinky up as a pointed nod to the British. More importantly, she padded the ridiculous stat of the USA never losing games in which she scores–that now sits at 63-0-10.
Scoring a goal had to be a relief for Morgan, who hasn’t looked 100% since the group stage. She didn’t play against Chile, got knocked around against Sweden, then spent more time on the ground than on her feet in the round-of-16 matchup versus Spain. She seemed to be back in a rhythm against France, setting up both of Rapinoe’s goals in the quarterfinal–one by drawing a foul, the other by playing Tobin Heath through for the assist–though she was still criticized for not putting anything in the back of the net herself.
This game was different. She knew she needed to act like a star with Rapinoe out and gain momentum after a scoring drought. She responded by doing those things at the most important time for the U.S., and she'll hope to celebrate even more on Sunday with what could be her second World Cup title.