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A Saved Penalty Kick Sends USA to Within One Win of the World Cup Trophy

Megan Rapinoe’s absence didn’t derail the USWNT in their semifinal win over England, as goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher’s heroics sent them to Sunday’s final

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

No ’Pinoe, no problem. The United States is on to the World Cup final.

With totemic forward Megan Rapinoe absent from the semifinal against England, reportedly due to a hamstring injury, the U.S. missed its joint leading goal scorer in this tournament and the star who had scored all four goals in its two preceding knockout-round games.

But her replacement, Christen Press, scored; Alex Morgan added another; and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher played her best game of the tournament to secure the U.S.’s third consecutive 2-1 win. It wasn’t the USWNT’s most balletic display of soccer, nor their most dominant, but they followed the same formula they used to beat France in the quarterfinals: score early, drop back on defense, and repel forward movement after forward movement until the clock runs out. Now only 90 minutes remain between the U.S. and its fourth World Cup title, and second in a row.

Rapinoe’s absence sparked furious speculation when the starting lineups were announced shortly before kickoff: Was it a tactical choice? Was she injured, or being disciplined? The Fox broadcast didn’t report the information about her injury until halftime, by which time American fans had already questioned coach Jill Ellis’s lineup—already a topic ripe for conversation at this tournament. Instead of Rapinoe, Press was slotted into the left forward position, and Lindsey Horan rejoined the starting lineup as well, replacing Sam Mewis in the midfield.

Both changes drew dividends early. In the 10th minute, a savvy dummy from Rose Lavelle led to an unguarded Kelley O’Hara cross, which found Press waiting alone at the back post. She powered a header into the back of the net; for the sixth consecutive game at this World Cup, the U.S. had scored within the first dozen minutes.

England equalized within a few minutes, but the U.S. returned to the attack and created the bulk of quality chances in the first half. Lavelle in particular zipped around wreaking havoc throughout England’s back line, and defenders Abby Dahlkemper and O’Hara put immediate pressure on the opposing defense with pinpoint long balls to switch the operative field.

In the 31st minute, one such diagonal ball from Dahlkemper reached Press near the touchline, and Press laid a pass for Horan. The talented midfielder hadn’t displayed much attacking zest since the tournament-opening 13-0 win over Thailand, in large part because she didn’t start either of the last two games, but she made her first assist of the World Cup count. She looked up, saw Morgan flash past a defender and into the box, and lofted a pass right to her teammate’s forehead. Morgan pushed it on toward the goal, in the process regaining the Golden Boot lead (and becoming the first player ever to score a World Cup goal on her birthday). She celebrated with a rather pointed display toward the opposition side.

The U.S. switched to a more conservative style after grabbing the lead. Julie Ertz frequently joined Dahlkemper and Becky Sauerbrunn on the back line as a third central defender, contorting the U.S. into a 5-4-1 formation. The U.S., which led the tournament in possession percentage after the group stage, let England hold most of the ball, as it did in its win over France. But the U.S. kept England, like France, from converting that possession into dangerous chances; the English completed fewer passes in the attacking third and penalty box than the U.S. did and attempted fewer total shots despite trailing for the final hour.

Meanwhile, Naeher proved her standing on the international stage, silencing all the naysayers (this website included) who figured her as the weak link on the USWNT starting lineup. Naeher had gone relatively untested in the group stage and committed a gaffe to gift Spain a goal in the round of 16, but she made a pair of stellar saves on Tuesday. First, in the 33rd minute, she dove and stretched to deflect a long-range shot that appeared to head toward the corner of her goal. And deep into the second half, she stonewalled a penalty kick that would have tied the score for England, and which ultimately represented the Three Lionesses’ last real chance to equalize before the final whistle.

Some questions, as always, linger about the USWNT’s performance. The team created scant few chances in the second half, particularly after Lavelle left to join Rapinoe on the bench with a hamstring injury of her own. Lavelle had fired four laser shots in the first 25 minutes and looked like the best U.S. attacker on the pitch—an especially welcome sign after she underwhelmed in the quarterfinal against France. But after she left in the 65th minute, the U.S. didn’t attempt a single shot for the remainder of the game—no one from the front line picked up her (and Rapinoe’s) slack.

The United States was also less cohesive in defense on Tuesday than it had been in the last round. Leading English scorer Ellen White found the net in the 19th minute when she snuck behind Dahlkemper—marking the center back’s first notable mistake of the tournament—to redirect a cross past Naeher, and she nearly tallied another in the second half before VAR negated the goal with an offside call.

Then, around the 80-minute mark, White and VAR dueted in another controversy. The forward had freed herself to run onto a horizontal ball at the 6-yard box, only to whiff and fall as Sauerbrunn closed. Initially, the ref let the play continue, only to reverse herself minutes later with the aid of the officiating technology. Then Naeher sprung perhaps her tournament-defining moment, and the challenge passed without knotting the score.

The U.S. must batten down its defensive hatches once again in the final, and it could need a further injection of offensive verve if Rapinoe can’t play. Tobin Heath typically supplies oodles of offensive creativity but has been strangely muted all tournament, and neither Press nor Morgan, despite scoring both goals, did much in buildup play on Tuesday.

Still, if the game plan asks the team to score early and then engage the defensive muscles for a while, it’s hard to fault the U.S. roster for executing accordingly. For the second consecutive game, the USWNT defeated an elite opponent against which it had struggled of late—before this month, the U.S. had gone 0-2-1 in its last three meetings with France and 1-1-1 in the same against England—and for the second consecutive game, they did so without ever trailing or seeming to lose control.

Now there’s only one team left to conquer. In Sunday’s final in Lyon, the USWNT will play either longtime nemesis Sweden or the upstart Netherlands, who play in Wednesday’s semifinal. Ellis’s lineup, substitution pattern, and 90-minute morphing strategy will likely spark debate anew come the weekend. But as long as her team keeps winning, there might not be any substantive critique to offer.