FIFA Women’s World Cup Day 26:

SEMI FINAL: ENGLAND 1-2 USA

Kristen Press opens the scoring for the USA versus England.

The USA ended ten-player England’s hopes of contesting their first Women’s World Cup with a 2-1 victory in Lyon. The goals were all scored in the first half, but the drama really began after the break. Kristen Press gave the Americans a 10th minute lead, heading in Kelley O’Hara’s whipped ball from the right. Ellen White equalised nine minutes later, getting in front of her marker to steer Beth Mead’s centre in off the left-hand post. But the Americans worked their way back into the ascendency and, just after the half hour, Alex Morgan met Lindsey Horan’s cross to power past Carly Telford. England thought White had equalised on 67 minutes, but VAR correctly ruled it offside. The England striker was in the thick of things again as the clock ran down, clipped by Becky Sauerbrunn in the penalty box, as she shaped to finish. VAR this time awarded England the decision, but captain Steph Houghton couldn’t beat Naeher from the spot. To rub salt in the wound, Millie Bright was dismissed for two yellow card offences and the game was up.

All the talk before the match was focused on Jill Ellis’s decision to leave out the iconic and talismanic Megan Rapinoe from the US line up. Kristen Press replaced her to maintain the 4-3-3 shape and Lindsey Horan swapped in for Sam Mewis. England keeper Karen Bardsley was declared injured, so Telford got her second call up of the tournament. Coach Phil Neville opted to change the team shape to 4-4-2, bringing wide players Beth Mead and Rachel Daly in for Toni Duggan and Fran Kirby.  Nikita Parris moved into a more advanced support striker role alongside White.

The USA – decked out in red and blue – began with their usual urgency. Rose Lavelle nearly opened the scoring on four minutes, nutmegging Bright on the goal line and cutting inside to shoot, but finding Telford well placed. Morgan was then inches away from connecting with Press’s free kick out on the left flank. It was a warning to the Lionesses of the aerial threat that was to come.

Team USA forged ahead moments later. Tobin Heath and O’Hara worked a crossing opportunity from the right by-line and no one in a white shirt tracked Press’s run to the far post with the forward heading in unchallenged. It wasn’t long before the same pair were causing havoc again, providing a chance for Lavelle who fired over.

England’s passing was loose and nervy under almost constant pressure in their own half. But when they stitched together their first move of genuine quality it yielded instant results. Keira Walsh sprayed a perfect diagonal pass to Mead out on the left wing. The Arsenal attacker stole a yard and curled in a low cross demanding to be finished and White didn’t disappoint: 1-1 and game on.

While still looking unconvincing, the Lionesses tried to use the equaliser as a springboard to get on the ball more and find their rhythm. The USA pressed high looking to exploit errors. Rose Lavelle’s half volley was well parried by Telford in the England goal after Lucy Bronze only half cleared. At the other Sauerbrunn almost turned Walsh’s cross from the left into her own net.

On 31 minutes Jill Ellis’s side forged ahead again. Abby Dahlkemper hit a long, high switch to Press out on the left touchline. The Utah Royals forward instantly controlled and fed Horan, who got the ball out of feet quickly and chipped an inviting ball into the box. Alex Morgan stole a yard on Demi Stokes and made no mistake, heading past Telford. Celebrating both her 6th goal of the competition and her 30th birthday, Morgan sipped an imaginary cup of tea to wind up English fans for good measure. Coach Phil Neville, a full back for most of his playing days, could only contemplate his defence’s failure to stop the cross for a second time.

England once again needed a response. Two minutes later Walsh hit a thunderbolt from 25-yards bound for the top corner which Naeher acrobatically pawed around the post.

Horan and Ertz had half chances for the States before the break and Jill Scott couldn’t get a good contact on her header from Mead’s corner. Of the 53,512 people in the stadium, England fans may well have felt the happier, getting to the interval without the damage being worse than it was. The Lionesses needed to keep the ball better, make smarter decisions playing out, and ensure Morgan et al were starved of a regular supply of crosses and dead ball opportunities from around the England box.

Whatever was said at half time in the England dressing seemed to instil some fire. Bright nodded Mead’s free kick from the right back across goal but White couldn’t get purchase on her overhead kick. The USA, reverting to their game management approach against the French, looked to pick up niggly fouls and break up the flow of the match. Neville replaced Mead with Fran Kirby on 58 minutes, switching England to a 4-2-3-1 with Daly on the left, Parris on the right and Kirby behind White.

Just before the hour, Telford short-changed Bright with a poor pass out, Press intercepted but couldn’t keep her shot down.  

VAR came into play for the first time halfway through the second period. Walsh played a quick free kick through the centre of midfield, Scott deftly flicked it off the outside of her right boot, and White ferreted in behind the defence finishing neatly. England got the benefit of a very marginal video decision against Cameroon in the round of 16, but they weren’t to be so lucky this time. It did, however, spur them on to their best spell of possession and pressure.

With 12 minutes to go Kirby threaded Parris into the left channel behind a tiring O’Hara. Parris slid the ball into the six-yard box, White timed her run perfectly but appeared to miskick her attempt. She appealed for a foul, but the match official waved it away.   Cue a long VAR check which commenced on 80 minutes and concluded with Steph Houghton placing the ball on the spot over three minutes later.  Nikita Parris had missed England’s two previous penalties earlier in the competition, so the captain chose to step forward and assume responsibility. She just didn’t get hold of it and Naeher saved comfortably low to her right.

It was the hammer blow. With emotions running high and Team USA running the clock down anyway they could, Bright got herself sent off for clattering Morgan. The Chelsea defender had received her first booking just before the break for what looked an accidental stray hand in Horan’s face during a challenge, but this one looked more cynical.

Semi-final disappointment for the Lionesses again.

“We’ve gone toe-to-toe with the best team in the world. My players gave me everything. I asked them to play football the way I wanted them to play. We should be proud, we’ve touched the hearts of the nation back home…”

Phil Neville, Head Coach, England

So not to be again for England. The saved penalty stands out as a key moment where the match was lost, which is cruel on Houghton who has led England with a series of strong performances at this tournament. But basic defensive errors in the first half cost the Lionesses well before the spot kick. Similar lapses in concentration and communication that were not punished in previous rounds were ruthlessly exploited by the reigning World Champions.

When England responded with their equaliser, the USA had extra gears to go through and key players who stepped up, worked harder and found a way to win. In the second half they had plenty of options from the bench. The American backline still looks susceptible to errors – there are goals to be had for decent opponents. But their midfield is relentless; Ertz, Lavelle, Horan and later Mewis won their duels and gave England no easy route to play out while simultaneously creating overload after overload for their wide players going forward. The front three, whichever combination Ellis picks, are going to score.  Rapinoe’s exclusion was the story prior to kick-off; her replacement Press scored the opener. Morgan hadn’t scored since the opening group match with Thailand but found a goal when it really mattered, in the World Cup Semi Final.    

Sweden or the Netherlands await in Sunday’s final. The Swedes, if they make it, look a better bet to try and defend it out against the US and grab something on the break. The Dutch have given the impression that they’d be more likely to try and win an all-out gunfight which would surely be the neutral’s choice. Either way, the USA looks like a squad that has the talent, the mental strength and the tactical flexibility to overcome either and retain their crown.

Player of the match: Kristen Press, USA (No one was talking about her before the game with all the Mega Rapinoe hype. But she scored one and was involved in the build-up to the second. She also did a great job preventing Lucy Bronze from having a major impact in an attacking sense)

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