The United States women's national team became the first team to reach three consecutive Women's World Cup finals by securing a gritty 2-1 victory over England in the semifinals on Tuesday. Alex Morgan scored the winner,, England had a goal called back via Video Assistant Referee and U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher saved a penalty kick with under 10 minutes to go. This match had just about everything you'd expect in an instant classic.
The U.S. will now play the winner of Sweden and the Netherlands on Sunday in the Women's World Cup final at Stade de Lyon. The Americans are seeking their fourth title and are vying to be the first nation to win it back-to-back since Germany in 2003 and 2007.
USA continued its trend of fast starts, scoring 10 minutes in thanks to a header from Christen Press. The U.S. has scored inside the first 12 minutes in every game it has played at the tournament. After Press' opener, England's Ellen White scored in the 19th minute to draw level. Alex Morgan, who celebrated her 30th birthday on Tuesday, ended her four-game goal drought with a fine header just after the half-hour mark in what proved to be the winning goal.:
A frantic second half saw England put the ball in the net through White again, but VAR confirmed she was offside. With eight minutes to go, England had a penalty kick confirmed by VAR off a foul from Becky Sauerbrunn on White, but Naeher denied Steph Houghton to maintain the one-goal advantage. Here's the moment:
The win puts USA on the verge of another title, and it keeps Jill Ellis, who was born in England and moved to the United States to pursue a career in soccer, undefeated at World Cups as coach of the United States. England, on the other hand, will be thinking about the what-ifs for days, maybe years to come.
Here are three takeaways from the match:
1. No matter what happens with Rapinoe, Press can pack a punch
There was really no doubt as to whether Press could come in and produce in Rapinoe's absence, but seeing her do so in this one has to make fans less nervous about a potential final without Rapinoe. Press scored the opener, did really well to combine with quick passes with her teammates and used her speed to keep possession and play into space. While she won't get as much credit as Rapinoe does, she's a sensational player who could start for most of the teams in the Women's World Cup. Having her come off the bench is a luxury, but she proved on Tuesday that when starting, she can give you everything you'd expect from a normal starter.
At worst, Press starts in the final and doesn't have a great game. At best, you could have Rapinoe dominate and Press come in and put it away. Press was on the 2015 Women's World Cup team and knows what it's like to be a champion, and whether it is Rapinoe or Press in the next game, USA fans should feel great about their chances.
2. Morgan seems to be back to her scoring ways
After scoring five goals against Thailand in a 13-0 thumping in the opener, we all thought Morgan was a lock for top scorer and would probably be hovering around 10 now. The truth is, she hasn't look incredibly sharp since that match. She showed a couple flashes against France, delivering a key pass to Tobin Heath to set up Rapinoe's winner. On Tuesday, she looked like a different player. Her winning goal off a brilliant header was just world class. Getting her back on the score sheet boosts her confidence, and having a confident striker entering a final can do wonders. If she's back to her prolific scoring ways, then watch out.
3. Naeher silences the doubters with clutch saves
Because of their dominant back line, Naeher is not asked to stop many shots. Sure, the U.S. has allowed a goal in three straight knockout stage games and Naeher is at fault for the goal conceded to Spain because of a sloppy pass, but otherwise she's erased some doubts. She isn't Hope Solo, but she's held her own when tested. Naeher made a couple big saves in this one -- none bigger than the penalty kick in the final minutes. While the jury will still be out on her ahead of the final, a win there and limiting the damage the opponent does in attack will only cement her place in the American records books.
It was just one penalty, but if the final comes down to a shootout, there's an added bit of confidence that she can be the hero this team might need.
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