People have been hard on the United States at this World Cup. After the U.S. women’s national team defeated Australia 3-1, a cheeky Australian team blogger commented on how sluggish the Americans looked. Earlier this week, Deadspin’s Billy Haisley noted that the team—short on offensive creativity and long on desperately pumping the ball forward to the aging Abby Wambach—needed to “evolve or die.” Haisley, in watching the Americans eke past 10-woman Colombia 2-0 in the last 16, was reminded of Brazil’s tired, uninspired performances at last year’s men’s World Cup before they were ultimately humiliated 7-1 in the semifinals to eventual champions Germany (I had the same thought). In my own incredulous write-up of that Colombia match, I said that the American fans were getting used to these unconvincing wins and the team needed to fix the offense before it was too late.
While one game was never going to provide the necessary longterm evolution Haisley described, the United States showed enough offensive improvement in a 1-0 quarterfinals victory over China on Friday to give the most skeptical fans among us something we haven’t had all tournament: hope.
That hope relied on U.S. coach Jill Ellis being forced to meddle with her line-up in the last eight. In addition to the midfield changes she had to make because of the suspensions of 2015 World Cup star Megan Rapinoe and regular starter Lauren Holiday, Ellis finally did what she had to do and moved all-time U.S. leading scorer Abby Wambach—who has been one of the biggest disappointments at this tournament—to the bench. Wambach’s replacement, Amy Rodriguez, missed some excellent early chances, including an absolute howler on a one-on-one chip attempt in the third minute. But her pace and ability to hold the ball for long stretches in the U.S. attacking third helped establish the tone of the game, which was dominated by the United States from the outset.
While the team wasn’t able to break through in the first half, the way they controlled possession made it only a matter of time before they’d score. Abby Wambach may have helped inspire the breakthrough—and may have found her new, best calling for this team—with a rousing and prophetic halftime prediction that in the "first 10 minutes we get a fucking goal."
Of course in the 51st minute, Carli Lloyd—making her 200th appearance for the United States—scored on a lovely header past the diving Chinese goalkeeper Wang Fei. For Lloyd, who was also responsible for setting up what should have been a goal on that blown opening chance by Rodriguez, it was her second score in as many games and the most important one of the tournament so far for the Americans. It would be the game-winner. While Lloyd’s performance was impressive, she was outshone by the woman who set up that score on Friday: Julie Johnston. The defender has been one of the American standouts at this tournament. In addition to setting up Lloyd’s goal with a beautiful deep ball, she was tenacious both on the defensive end of the ball and in helping to press the Chinese in their own half. Johnston had two of her own scoring opportunities, and generally made life difficult for the Chinese women on every part of the pitch. As U.S. men's national team forward Jozy Altidore put it, Johnston was "beast mode."
Johnston has been one of the anchors of a U.S. defense that hasn’t given up a goal since the first game of the tournament, claiming a Women’s World Cup team record scoreless streak of 423 straight minutes.* Prior to Friday’s slight offensive surge, that defensive line—along with star goalkeeper Hope Solo—have been the main argument for those who wanted to contend that the U.S. could defeat the best teams in the world and claim this title. Ali Krieger, one of the other anchors of that defense, joined Johnston in marauding mode and nearly added her own goal in the second half, drilling an amazing shot from distance that just hit the post.
The United States will need similar pressure to defeat No. 1 ranked Germany, their opponent in the semifinals. The Germans advanced on Friday to the last four by beating an impressive French team 5-4 in a penalty shootout after coming from behind and playing out a 1-1 draw. France, whose flowing attack was one of the most entertaining things about the contest and had been one of the best things to watch at this World Cup, easily deserve to be in the next round. It is only by an intentionally stupid FIFA draw that the Group F winners and world No. 3 ranked team were forced to play the Germans so early in the knockout round—the incompetent soccer governing put two of the best three teams in the same quarter of the bracket in order to goose ratings and ticket sales.
France versus Germany could have easily been a World Cup final and it would have been a worthy one. Let’s hope the same is true of the United States’ next match against the Germans on Tuesday. History bodes well for that—in each of the three previous times the two teams have met at the Women's World Cup, the winner has gone on to claim the title. At this point it seems almost certain that the United States will stave off anything even resembling Brazil’s embarrassment against Germany in last year’s men’s World Cup semifinal. But to do more than that—to overcome the toughest team of this tournament—the Americans will need every bit of creative spark they showed against China, and then some. Then again—with Hope Solo in net—maybe all the Americans will need to do is extend that record scoreless streak for a mere 120 more minutes and hope for the best.
Correction, June 30, 2015, 9:55 p.m.: This post originally misstated that the team claimed a Women's World Cup record scoreless streak.