The final scoreline of the U.S. Women’s National Team’s game against China on Friday was a familiar and seemingly unimpressive 1-0 win for the Americans, but they left the pitch knowing they had played their best game of the tournament.
The United States’ dominant showing pushed the team to the semifinals, where it will take on the top-ranked team in the world, Germany. The way the USWNT had played up until the China game would have inspired no confidence, but the fact that the Americans finally put together a strong offensive showing gives their fans some hope that the team can fulfill the expectations thrown onto the talent-laden U.S. team.
Team USA outshot the Chinese team, 17-6, and was clearly the team creating more chances for its offense throughout the game. The USWNT dominated the game more than its 56-44 possession advantage indicates. China’s possessions usually consisted of the team kicking the ball around trying to get into the attacking third but failing, as the relentless U.S. defense kept performing at a world-class level. By keeping the Chinese team scoreless, the Americans extended the time they’ve held opponents scoreless to 423 consecutive minutes, stretching all the way back to Australia’s lone goal in the first match of the tournament.
With the defense spectacular as always, it was the newfound offensive emphasis and competence that set this U.S. performance apart from the rest. The offensive attacks started early, and it was jarring when the whistle blew to end the first half and the U.S. score read 0. The United States had several close opportunities in the first 45 minutes, but it wasn’t able to capitalize on them. In fact, the team easily set a new high for touches in the attacking third in the first half, according to ESPN, as the USWNT’s 136 touches there blew away the team’s previous best from the first half against Australia.
By the end of the first half, frustration began to appear on the faces of the American players as they failed to convert scoring opportunities. At one point, as the first half came to a close, Cal alumna Alex Morgan punched the field with both of her fists and with an exasperated grimace on her face as she barely missed the chance to give the U.S. the lead. The frustration and passion the players displayed throughout match showed how important it was to them that they create an offensive breakthrough in this game.
In the games leading up to the fixture against China, it was clear that the U.S. offense was not what analysts and fans had originally hoped for. Instead, head coach Jill Ellis’ squad had been playing stagnantly and uncreatively, and the offense was consistently too slow to pass, despite the individual technical prowess of players such as Morgan and Megan Rapinoe. Rapinoe had to miss Friday’s game because she received her second yellow card of the tournament in the round of 16 against Colombia.
Even with Rapinoe’s absence, something sparked a positive change in the U.S. squad. Perhaps it was Carli Lloyd’s ascension to an attacking midfielder role. In this role, the 32-year-old led a much more crisp offensive line that was willing to take risks. She played so well that were it not for a moment of excellence in the 51st minute, she still would have deserved the game ball. But it was that 51st minute that finally put the United States, which has consistently struggled to finish goal-scoring chances, up for good. Julie Johnston, who has been a breakout star for the Americans in the tournament, started the series like so many Americans before her. She stood nearer to the midfield than she did to the goalie and served the ball into the box, hoping to find a U.S. player’s head. And Lloyd made sure that Johnston’s cross would not be wasted, as she rose up and headed the ball, burying it into the net from 10 yards out to extend the Americans’ undefeated streak against the Chinese to 25 consecutive matches.
The win and the goal guaranteed that the United States would not break its streak of making it to at least the semifinals in every World Cup in which it has competed. While the journey to this one was not as impressive or dominant as some of the others were, the Americans can find solace in the fact that their team appears to be peaking just in time for its toughest competition.