So, the Germany vs. USA semifinal wound up playing out like the plot of Pitch Perfect 2, with the Americans patching up their earlier problems with cohesion and putting together a great performance to defeat a scary-looking, trash-talking German team. So if Team USA are the Barden Bellas, that means that Alex Morgan is Beca (the brilliant newbie-turned-seasoned pro), Abby Wambach is Aubrey (the bygone leader who’s made way for the new blood, shouting encouragement), and Morgan Brian is Emily (the hope for continued future success). But then which of the players is Fat Amy? Amy Rodriguez has the right first name, but she’s hardly fat. I’m being silly. Let’s get to the questions.
How did everything go so right for USA?
Jill Ellis suddenly switched from the 4-4-2 formation that she had been using all tournament to a 4-2-3-1, with Alex Morgan as the lone striker, Lauren Holiday and Morgan Brian in defensive midfield, and Carli Lloyd marauding in the middle. Funny how sticking square pegs into square holes will get you the right results. The Germans seemed flustered by the change, and also by the willingness of the Americans to attack them. USA saw how the French came close to success in the quarterfinal by showing no fear of the Germans, but it’s strange that the Germans were taken aback once again by the same approach. Instead of pressing the defenders like they did against China, USA pressured Germany’s midfield and created a fair number of turnovers. Keeping so much possession of the ball threatened to play into the hands of Germany’s lethal counterattack, but in the end, it helped USA snuff out the mighty German offense.
Did USA get lucky?
Undoubtedly. No team wins a tournament like this without a good slice of luck. USA’s share of it came in the form of Julie Johnston not being sent off when she pulled down Alexandra Popp in the 59th minute. In the referee’s defense, the play happened quickly and Popp was only a step beyond Johnston, but she still had a breakaway chance on goal, and the rules still say that a red card should be issued. Then the penalty that was called when Annike Krahn fouled Morgan should have been a free kick, since the contact took place outside the box. (By the way, the other semifinal had two dodgy penalties awarded. I said it before: The officiating in the women’s game needs to improve.) People like to think that bad calls even themselves out, but the truth is, they don’t. The ones here broke for USA.
So the win was a fluke?
No. There were also plenty of other things outside of USA’s control that contributed to the win. Germany’s energy levels were probably lower than usual because they needed 120 minutes and a penalty shootout to beat France four days before. Also, Germany had some success with offensive players running at Johnston with the ball, but for whatever reason, they often settled for shots from long-distance instead. That’s not how you beat Hope Solo, and anyway, most of those shots sailed over the crossbar or wide of the post. With all that, the complexion of the game would have changed radically in Germany’s favor if Celia Šašić had simply buried that penalty she was given. Instead, the leading scorer at this tournament sent it wide left for her country’s first-ever penalty miss in Women’s World Cup history. Soccer tournament history is full of teams that seem to be cruising along until one day, they’re suddenly stopped. Thanks to USA’s defense and midfield, that’s what happened to the Germans.
When is Brain Injury Awareness Month, again?
It’s in March, but FIFA still hasn’t gotten the memo. Morgan Brian was visibly concussed when she banged heads with Popp going for a loose ball early on, yet she was sent back onto the pitch minutes later. We’ve already been over this — soccer doesn’t do enough to protect its players. And Fox analyst Ariane Hingst’s praise of Brian for getting back on the field was the wrong note.
Was England’s loss the most wrenching in World Cup history?
I thought no player at this tournament could feel worse than Claire Lavogez, who missed France’s final penalty kick in the quarterfinal shootout, allowing Germany to advance. But then Laura Bassett scored an own goal with 90 seconds left in England’s semi that won the game for Japan. It was a cruel ending for the English, who outplayed the defending champs in the second half. Somewhere, Jess Bhamra and Jules Paxton are weeping with her. (If they were real-life people, they’d be young enough to be playing for England.) Well, England’s men’s team has a proud tradition of losing big games in the most painful ways possible. I’m sure they’ll welcome the women into that tradition. Already, the British fans and press have poured out their sympathies. Perhaps England can salvage something in Saturday’s third-place game against Germany. And at least Bassett’s own goal was spectacular. If that ball had come off the foot of a Japanese player, it would have been a candidate for goal of the tournament. Bassett can take comfort in not blundering as embarrassingly as in this own goal the English men scored in a Euro qualifier against Croatia nine years ago. That’s the way it could have been worse:
So how does the final stack up?
Japan has won all six of the games they’ve played, but all of those wins have been by one-goal margins. That’s a dangerous way to live. The Nadeshiko beat you with their midfield passing, especially by team captain Aya Miyama and Rumi Utsugi, who has played at left back, left wing, and central midfield. Some fans find their death-by-a-thousand-short-passes style mesmerizing and others find it suffocating, but when the team is at its best, their victory feels inevitable because the opposing team has so little of the ball. The thing is, they’ve had trouble sticking the ball in the back of the net. Even against a wildly overmatched Ecuador team, they only managed one goal.
How can USA beat them, then?
The Japanese have never trailed in this tournament. Indeed, their style is designed to prevent them from falling behind. If USA can score first, it will put unfamiliar pressure on the champions and coach Norio Sasaki to make adjustments. As we saw when the Spanish men’s team fell apart in last year’s World Cup, the system isn’t particularly well-suited to chasing the game.
When’s the game?
Sunday in prime time. There’s still time to book plane tickets to Vancouver.