LYON, France — Alyssa Naeher held the ball tightly in her arms late Tuesday evening as the Stade de Lyon detonated with noise.
She had simply made a save on a penalty kick by Steph Houghton in the 84th minute of a tense semifinal match — a save that successfully sealed the United States’ 2-1 win over England and its place in the World Cup ultimate on Sunday. In the pleasure of the second, a number of of Naeher’s teammates rushed straight at her.
There was Alex Morgan, smiling, wrapping her in an aggressive hug. Kelley O’Hara jumped in and smothered Naeher, too. Then got here Julie Ertz, screaming in her face. But Naeher wished nothing to do with the celebration.
“Let’s go!” she shouted, signaling downfield. “Let’s go! Let’s go!”
It was the greatest second of Naeher’s profession, an emphatic rebuke to the critics and cynics who questioned her readiness to take over as goalkeeper for the world’s No. 1-ranked staff.
But in the second, she was extra involved about not being penalized for holding the ball too lengthy and delaying the restart of play.
“I didn’t want to get called for eight seconds,” Naeher mentioned after the recreation, laughing. “I didn’t know what the ref was going to do.”
She arrived at this World Cup holding, for the first time, the starting goalkeeper’s job at a major tournament. The position had been occupied proudly, spectacularly even, for the American team by a pair of star players, Briana Scurry and Hope Solo, since the early 1990s. Their shadows loomed large.
Scurry herself suggested this year that goalkeeper could be the team’s weak spot, putting Naeher in “the question column” in a forecast of the Americans’ chances to repeat as world champions.
Pundits wondered whether Naeher had the disposition, the necessary confidence, to handle the job. The people closest to her on the team always insisted that she did.
“People are constantly trying to say something negative, just her constantly living in the shadow of Hope Solo,” Ashlynn Harris, the backup goalkeeper, said about Naeher after the game. “I’ll tell you what, that’s a damn good goalkeeper in there that doesn’t get enough credit. She has showed up this tournament time and time again for this team, and I hope it silenced a lot of people.”
Heading into Tuesday’s match Naeher had put together a solid tournament for the United States, which advanced to its third straight World Cup title game and will face the winner of Wednesday’s semifinal between Sweden and the Netherlands.
But what Naeher lacked, still, was a signature performance, an indelible picture of triumph.
The opportunity came when Becky Sauerbrunn fouled the English striker Ellen White in the penalty box late in the match. Naeher stood on the line and took several deep breaths as Houghton, chosen for the penalty kick, took four steps to the ball and drilled it toward the left post.
But the shot had neither the strength nor the placement to elude Naeher, who lunged to her right and corralled the ball beneath her body.
After the game, Naeher was asked if that had been the biggest save of her life. “It’s probably up there,” she said, eliciting laughter from a group of reporters.
She was modest, as ever. But her teammates were happy to talk up the moment on her behalf.
“I feel like she hasn’t really had moments like these to come into herself,” said Megan Rapinoe, who watched the penalty kick nervously from the sideline while nursing a strained right hamstring that kept her out of the lineup. “For her to have this moment, for her personally, I think, is just so special and is one of those things she’ll never forget.”
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England, in all, proved to be yet another tough challenger for the United States. But the Americans’ run to the finals had an air of inevitability, just waiting for the confirmation of Tuesday’s victory.
A nifty sequence in the 10th minute produced a 1-0 lead for the United States: Rose Lavelle let a pass from Tobin Heath run under her feet toward the right corner to Kelley O’Hara, who looped a cross from the right side to the far post. There, Christen Press was free to drill a header into the upper left corner of the goal.
England tied the game nine minutes later, when White sneaked behind the United States’ two central defenders to meet a bending, left-footed cross from Beth Mead and thump the ball into the net.
Morgan put the Americans ahead again in the 31st minute, leaping to head in a cross from the left side from Lindsey Horan. She celebrated by lifting her fingers to her lips, pinkie out, as if she were taking a sip of tea.
As play resumed, a large portion of the American fans in the crowd sang “Happy Birthday” for Morgan, who turned 30 on Tuesday.
The goal was Morgan’s sixth of the tournament but her first since scoring five in the opening match for the United States, a 13-0 rout of Thailand. After that, opponents seemed to make an extra effort to throw Morgan off her game, and England was no exception.
Millie Bright received a yellow card when she put a forearm into Morgan’s face in the first half. And Morgan was on the receiving end again when Bright earned a second yellow for a studs-up tackle in the 86th minute.
England was reduced to 10 players, and the Americans just had to run out the clock from there.
At the final whistle, the team’s bench players sprinted straight to Naeher, surrounding her. Sauerbrunn grasped Naeher first. She held her tight and told her she loved her. Then came everyone else, patting Naeher’s back and shoulders, smothering her.
And this time, Naeher yielded to the moment. She stood still, deep inside the jumble of jubilant bodies. She had a huge smile on her face.
Andrew Das of The Times tracked the match in real time. Read on to follow it as it happened.
Seven minutes of injury time.
That’s been the standard number since our V.A.R. overlords took control of world soccer during this tournament. But it’s a lot of time to kill if you’re the United States.
RED CARD!!!! England’s Millie Bright is off!!
She stamps on Morgan and gets her second yellow — SHE’S OFF!!!! It’s all going off the rails for England now.
Lloyd, for Heath, and now Krieger, for O’Hara, have come on to help close this out.
NAEHER SAVES IT!!!!!
Steph Houghton steps up and pulls her shot left, but Naeher guesses right and smothers it!! Somewhere, Rasheed Wallace mumbles, “Ball don’t lie.” (Google it.)
What a moment, though: That may have sent the Americans to the final. A crushing moment for England.
And a triumph for Naeher, who many — though NOT her teammates — thought might be the weak link in the Americans’ title hopes.
White … in the middle … HOW HAS SHE MISSED THERE???
White, wide open in the middle on a tantalizing rolling cross, whiffs on the shot that would have tied the score.
The replay seems to show that as she brought her foot back, she caught Sauerbrunn with it just as the American jumped to try to avoid contact. White came up screaming for a penalty, and now — after a loooooong delay — the referee, Edina Alves Batista, will go have a look.
That scare was the Bat Signal for a five-player U.S. back line.
Ertz drops in, and the United States shifts into full-on Let’s-Protect-This-and-Get-out-of-Here mode. Horan and Mewis take up positions in front.
NO GOAL!!! White was offside on the second touch from Scott.
What a letoff for the United States. But the referee doesn’t even go to the screen. The replay appears to show that the call is correct, if irritating if you’re English.
I’ll just leave this here from this morning:
GOOOOOOAL!!! White scores again, and we’re tied!!!!
A lightning quick strike up the middle by Walsh, touched on by Scott, leads White perfectly, and she slots home past Naeher. Clinical, but wait …
Lavelle is down. And hurt? (Yup.)
“It’s my hamstring,” she mouths after pivoting hard to knife a clearance out of bounds, and out of danger.
Sam Mewis, up quickly, sprints on to replace her. That’s a move Ellis was probably going to make anyway to lock down this lead. But losing Lavelle for a (potential) final would really hurt.
Mistake by Telford, GREAT chance for Press!
Press steals a lazy back pass right at the top of the area and, with two touches, turns for a shot. But it goes high and wide, and does nothing but reveal Morgan, standing wide open, to her left. Poor decision, and a wasted chance.
England sub: Kirby for Mead.
That’s a move for both fresh legs and experience. Let’s see if Ellis counters it.
The U.S. is keeping its shape.
You can kind of sense, though, that Ertz feels the pull of that back line role again. She’s got one foot in the role every time there’s danger, or a free kick.
England goes close — verrrrrry close.
A free kick finds Bright at the back post, and she drops it in the goalmouth at the feet of White. With her back to the goal, she tries to flip it over her head — but Naeher is standing right there and catches it.
No matter, though: The linesman has her flag up. Offside.
Moments later, Ertz takes a whack to the foot, and now Horan has taken a tumble backtracking in her penalty area. Getting a little chippy.
No changes at halftime for either team, but a yellow for Horan.
Lindsey Horan gets an early yellow, though, for an elbow to the face of England’s Bronze in midfield. It seemed Jill Scott came over and helped persuade to the Brazilian referee that one was warranted.
Encouraging signs for both teams.
Ellis will be thrilled with the lead, and the two goals, but Neville and England will feel fortunate to have gotten one back, and to have traded punches with the world’s best team. Yes, England is still behind, but figure Neville is in the locker room right now screaming about how they’ve held their own, how they’ve got a goal, and how they didn’t back down.
The United States has had to do some serious defending today: England has tested the Americans like no other opponent so far, even France, which had moments but never really felt as if it would win. England definitely can. White’s finish was clinical, and the Americans can’t just turtle up the way they did against France and hope to fight her off. They’ll have to play, or else she’ll eventually find an opening.
That said, Ellis’s default in the past two games as she shifted to protecting a second-half lead has been to drop Julie Ertz in as a third center back. It might not be a bad idea today. White got between the center backs to score, and Ertz will add some clutter in there and a threat in the air on any crosses. But to make it work, Ellis would need Horan and Lavelle to drop and pinch in front of that back line, and that’s not Lavelle’s game. It is, however, a role for Sam Mewis.
But first, maybe they should try to get a third goal.
45’ + 1
One minute of stoppage time in the first half.
England wins a corner but wastes it, and then Morgan gives chase for a long ball down the center, only to see it bounce into Telford’s hands.
There’s the whistle. Great half. The Americans lead, 2-1.
Yellow card for England’s Bright.
Morgan takes a hand to the face from Millie Bright in a collision at midfield, Morgan’s latest wound. But Bright gets a yellow card for it, and that may make her life difficult. The U.S. pressure has been relentless, and she will find herself in challenging situations again. From now on, though, she will have to be careful.
MORGAN!!! And the U.S. is back in front at 2-1!
The birthday girl has a goal. Horan carves out a bit of space on the left, and her cross meets a galloping Morgan right in front of Telford. Morgan, who turned 30 today, had a step on Stokes, but that was all she needed for a header, casually turned in past the defenseless keeper.
That’s her sixth goal of the World Cup — and first since the Thailand game — and it ties her with England’s White for the tournament lead.
Wooooof: almost an own goal for Sauerbrunn.
Moments after Mead wastes an open chance in the box by slipping with the ball at her feet, a cross come back in toward Sauerbrunn, who mis-hits it and narrowly misses burying an own goal past Naeher.
The U.S. escapes, though, as the ball slips around the far post. That. Was. Close.
Lavelle takes a poke, and Morgan is down.
Another long cross from the right toward Morgan results in a collision, and Bronze runs the striker from behind. But the ball falls to Lavelle, who absolutely stings a ball off Telford’s gloves. That was a rocket.
But more important for the U.S., Morgan stays down after the hit from behind. Scroll down for more on the beating she has taken in this World Cup.
UPDATE: Morgan goes off, but comes right back on. Just another day at the mines.
TIE GAME! It’s White for England — AGAIN!!! 1-1!
Boom. Just like that England pulls even. Beth Mead took the ball wide of O’Hara on the left and served in a curling, low screamer. Ellen White simply turned it in, a proper English finish. Naeher had no chance.
White’s positioning and instincts were excellent there — she found a gap between the center backs, Dahlkemper and Sauerbrunn, that made it easy. She now has six goals in the World Cup, making her the leading scorer (over Morgan and Rapinoe, who each have five).
That is only the third goal allowed in the tournament by the United States.
Jill Ellis is a genius. Kidding.
But it’s the United States with ANOTHER early goal, and it’s Rapinoe’s replacement, Christen Press, who gets it.
That was remarkably easy, in the end: Kelley O’Hara took a ball to the end line under little pressure and drove a ball across the goal in the general direction of Press. Unmarked behind right back Lucy Bronze, who has won praise from Neville as the best player in the world, she simply met it with her forehead and beat Telford. Easy finish, and the U.S. leads, 1-0.
It’s the sixth straight game in which the United States has scored first, and in the first dozen minutes. That breaks England’s streak of four straight shutouts, too, and is the worst possible start for a team that knew it would need to be at its best to win today.
The United States wins the first corner.
They crowded Telford, the replacement goalkeeper, on the corner but she fought it off. But that’s not the end of it. The U.S. creates two more dangerous chances after recycling the failed corner, including a gorgeous nutmeg by Rose Lavelle in the box that freed her for a shot that Telford did well to save.
This is the pressure U.S. opponents fear.
“Be brave,” Neville had told his team. They’ve really needed to be so far.
We’re underway in Lyon: watch Press early.
England takes possession, and the U.S. sits back early. The obvious place to watch when the Americans get the ball is the left wing, where Press is taking Rapinoe’s place.
England will want to lock things down early; early goals have been a key to every U.S. win in the World Cup. Avoiding one would be goal No. 1 for the Lionesses.
Rapinoe is not taking part in drills.
Andrew Keh is watching Rapinoe from the media tribune at Stade de Lyon:
She was the last one to run out of the tunnel for pregame warm-ups. She went through some of the warm-up jogging with the team. But once they started doing their drills with the ball, she peeled off on her own and has been standing on the sideline ever since.
Now she’s standing near the 18 yard box, watching the shooting drills.
She’s got her arms folded across her chest and it periodically clapping encouragement for her teammates.
The U.S. lineup is out and … wow. Rapinoe SITS.
The day’s first surprise comes from Jill Ellis, who has benched Megan Rapinoe in favor of Christen Press on the left wing. (Ellis’s only other change — Lindsey Horan for Sam Mewis in midfield — has been an either/or choice all tournament.) But sitting Rapinoe, who has scored four goals in the past two games, is, um, curious.
(UPDATE: Rapinoe came out for warm-ups but did not warm up with the team, suggesting she has picked up an injury.)
As Ali Krieger, Alex Morgan and nearly everyone has noted: The United States has the deepest roster in the tournament. And Press has been excellent every time she has stepped on the field. But sitting Rapinoe (if she is healthy) in a World Cup semifinal — when she has turned in two-goal performances in consecutive games — carries real risks for Ellis. Rapinoe is popular in the locker room, a dangerous threat in a front line that has performed well and, in many ways, the face of the team to outsiders.
If the move backfires — especially if Rapinoe is not injured — then Ellis will bear the brunt of the blame. Then again, Ellis has led the team to 10 straight wins over two World Cups, so one also needs to consider that she knows exactly which buttons to push on her team.
Aly Wagner of Fox Sports tweeted out a video that said Rapinoe was not out warming up with the team, and our photographer at the match, Pete Kiehart, has sent photos of Rapinoe walking without cleats on. It doesn’t appear she is fit.
U.S. Soccer declined to comment on the decision to sit Rapinoe, referring questions about the lineup to Ellis postgame. But in previous games when a likely starter wasn’t in the lineup (Becky Sauerbrunn against Thailand and Julie Ertz against Sweden), U.S. Soccer was quick to note an injury — minor in both cases — was the reason. They are not saying that with Rapinoe today.
Here’s the full United States starting lineup: Alyssa Naeher; Crystal Dunn, Becky Sauerbrunn, Abby Dahlkemper, Kelley O’Hara; Lindsey Horan, Julie Ertz, Rose Lavelle; Christen Press, Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath.
England has made some big changes too.
Rapinoe is not the only surprise omission today: England’s Phil Neville has made a few of his own.
The biggest might be in goal, where the starter Karen Bardsley has picked up a minor injury. Carly Telford takes her place. In midfield, Rachel Daly takes the place of Fran Kirby, and Beth Mead starts for Toni Duggan.
Neville had hinted that he was looking for a way to get Daly in the team, noting that she had played well in a SheBelieves Cup matchup against the United States in March. The teams tied, 2-2, that night. He had suggested she might turn out at right back, with Lucy Bronze pushing forward into midfield, but for now it’s Daly listed as a midfielder. Duggan and Kirby are on the bench, so it appears they are available.
Here’s England starting lineup: Carly Telford; Demi Stokes, Millie Bright, Steph Houghton, Lucy Bronze; Jill Scott, Keira Walsh; Rachel Daly, Nikita Parris, Beth Mead; Ellen White.
Confidence? Or overconfidence?
There has been quite a bit of talk about arrogance and overconfidence in the run-up to today’s match, much of it fueled by a British news media looking to take the United States down a peg. But there also has been much opinion shared by people who didn’t like the way the United States celebrated each one of its 13 goals against Thailand. And by those who didn’t like Ali Krieger’s suggestion that the United States has the best team in the world, but also the second-best team in the world. And then there are those who predictably took predictable sides in a nonsoccer dust-up between Megan Rapinoe and President Trump.
Some of the usual suspects have weighed in.
Inevitably, the accusations made their way back to the American team. United States Coach Jill Ellis brushed the critiques aside on Sunday.
“It’s important that our team has confidence,” she said, adding, “I don’t think in any way this is an arrogant team. I think this team knows they’ve got to earn everything, that we’ve got tough opponents still ahead of us and we have to earn every right to advance in this tournament.”
Midfielder Christen Press struck the same theme on Monday.
“I don’t think our team is arrogant at all; I think our team is confident,” she told reporters. “We’re respectful of our opponents, and the way that we respect them is by preparing for each game as if the opponent that we’re going to play is the best in the world.
“I think that — on top of the level of intensity and preparation and effort that goes into each game — is the best way to respect who you are playing,” she added. “And I think that confidence is beautiful, and that’s a big part of the U.S. women’s national team’s legacy, and it’s actually an important part that we really hope that our performances are helping and spreading to others in the world, and the next generations looks and sees that and feels that and carries that on.”
Alex Morgan has taken a beating in the World Cup.
Sweden kicked her right out of a game. Spain roughed her up. France took its shots, too.
Alex Morgan, the tip of the United States attacking spear, has taken more than her share of punishment during this World Cup, and she may be facing another beating from England today.
Part of this is positional: as a target striker, a No. 9 in soccer terms, Morgan’s role in Coach Jill Ellis’s 4-3-3 system is multifold: sometimes she is chasing down balls played in front of her; often she plays with her back to the goal instead, winning headers or controlling long passes and holding off defenders just long enough for her wings and midfielders to join her in the attack. At all times, she is looking to get herself free, and into a position to score.
Against Thailand in the Americans’ opening game, that meant five goals. (More than a few people thought that was too many; Morgan didn’t particularly care about their opinion.) But Morgan hasn’t scored since. Against Sweden, she was subbed off at halftime. Against Spain, she spent a good chunk of the match detailing for the referee how she was being abused. But against France, her holdup play was again vital, buying time for a tiring team that was defending valiantly with (almost) all hands for most of the second half.
“Naturally, as a No. 9, I’m going to be plowed through quite often, and I understand that comes along with the job,” Morgan said. “And it happens many times, in the N.W.S.L., or even with friendlies, so I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily more physical in general at this World Cup. I would just say that it comes with the territory.”
The job is quite a change for a player once nicknamed Baby Horse for the way she ran freely behind defenses. But that was a different time.
England Coach Phil Neville, who once boasted of kicking an Arsenal player until he questioned his career choices, has surely noted that, while the treatment hasn’t stopped the United States from winning, it has stopped Morgan from scoring. That is absolutely something he would like to see continue.
No, the United States did not spy on England.
England Coach Phil Neville, who appears to have declared himself the arbiter of the Proper Way to Do Things at this World Cup, caused a stir over the weekend when he complained publicly about what he considered an unacceptable breach of protocol by U.S. Soccer.
Neville, who earlier had declared himself “utterly ashamed” of an opponent’s behavior in an England victory, took issue with a visit by two U.S. Soccer operations staff members to his team’s five-star hotel in Lyon over the weekend. The visit, it turned out, was a simple bit of due diligence: FIFA has assigned the team hotels in Lyon, and it placed England in the five-star Fourvière.
But since the winner of the United States-England semifinal will be lodged at that hotel ahead of the final, U.S. Soccer sent over two team officials — the hotel is a public facility — to look it over while England was at a training session over the weekend.
“I would assume everybody is doing that,” United States Coach Jill Ellis said, brushing off a question of whether the visit was a sign “of arrogance or overconfidence.” “You have to plan ahead.”
Neville, however, pronounced himself appalled at what he labeled a breach of “etiquette.”
“It’s not something that England would do,” he said.
The English news media quickly took up the easy narrative, declaring the incident #Spygate on social media and demanding answers from Ellis and her players. When a lone observer was ejected from England’s training session on Monday, some reporters even got a second day out of the story.