Defense wins championships.
Nowhere is that becoming more apparent than in this World Cup. The United States back line has not allowed a goal since their first group game against Australia on June 8. For three long, grueling weeks, Becky Sauerbrunn, Julie Johnston, Ali Krieger, and Meghan Klingenberg have kept America in it and for three long, grueling weeks, the attacking players have slowly been coming up to par.
Things started really clicking in the quarterfinals against China, with players like Kelley O'Hara and Amy Rodriguez making things exciting. Their constant movement through the midfield and around the box helped open up the attack beyond the stodgy, uninspired play in group.
O'Hara was once again a difference maker in the semifinal, putting the game to bed with a goal in the 84' off a Carli Lloyd assist. Lloyd was another one who looked miles better than before, as did Lauren Holiday. Megan Rapinoe had some creative momentum and Morgan Brian looked comfortable holding the middle of the park despite her head-to-head collision with Alexandra Popp in the 29'.
The collision was a bad one, with Brian looking pale and shaken and Popp bleeding profusely from her scalp. Both players returned to the pitch, however, Brian after some on-field tests from trainers and Popp after having her head bandaged. Fans, players, coaches, and FIFA officials alike would do well to question if concussion protocol in these instances was sufficient to protect players.
The other controversies of the match were the penalty kicks—yes, multiple.
The first was called on Julie Johnston for tugging down Popp in the box. Johnston was given a yellow card, but there were calls for red for a denial of goalscoring opportunity. Celia Sasic took the penalty for Germany; normally calm, cool, and collected, Sasic this time sent the ball wide despite Hope Solo guessing the wrong direction. The scoreline remained level at 0-0 until the referee called another penalty, this time against Annike Krahn for taking down Alex Morgan. This time the question was if Krahn took Morgan down outside of the box, which you can see at 1:10 below, along with Julie Johnston's foul:
The ref might have influenced the game with penalty calls, but at the same time, Germany was not robust in its attack after the first five or 10 minutes. Coming off playing a full 90 plus extra time against France in their own quarterfinal round, they were unable to keep up with the U.S. attack and were stymied by a tough, organized back line. Neid only used one sub, sending in Dzsenifer Marozsan in the 77' for Anja Mittag despite Marozsan not being completely 100%.
As for the American attack, Ellis made two attacking subs of import: Kelley O'Hara for Tobin Heath, which was absolutely the right move as Heath was disappearing into the game, and Abby Wambach for Megan Rapinoe, which was more puzzling. If Ellis' intention was to keep pressing for a second goal, Wambach's play was not in line with those intentions, instead holding up play in the attacking third. If Ellis' intention was to slow the game down and try to hold on to a 1-0 lead against Germany, that seems awfully risky despite their lack of attacking. Rapinoe was certainly not out of gas or ideas; if anyone should have gone in, it should have been either Christen Press or Amy Rodriguez for Alex Morgan, who seemed to lack in her usual confidence.
The most important part of today's game, however, is that Coach Jill Ellis finally made some structural changes, deploying a 4-2-3-1 that let Carli Lloyd off the leash and also gave Lauren Holiday some room to maneuver with Morgan Brian at her back. She resisted whatever urges she might have had to start Wambach and continued to give Kelley O'Hara a chance to show her quality. Over the past two games O'Hara has been more than up to snuff and deserves a starting spot in the final against either England or Japan over Tobin Heath. The United States improves from game to game and looks on target to peak in the final thanks to improvement from key players like Lloyd and personnel changes like O'Hara and Morgan Brian. Hopefully Ellis takes note and doesn't return to old lineups and formations, instead moving forward with the tide to stay ahead of the game.
The United States will play in the World Cup final in Vancouver on Sunday, July 5 against the winner of England vs. Japan.