A beaten-down Steph Houghton set the ball atop the penalty spot, poised as ever to score her second goal as England’s captain in the 2019 Women’s World Cup, one that would bring her country level with the mighty U.S. women’s national soccer team, at two goals apiece with nearly 10 minutes to spare in the semifinal match.
Her route to the penalty spot was met with profound jeers from the crowd in the Stade de Lyon after a VAR decision overturned a seemingly innocent challenge from U.S. defender Becky Sauerbrunn on England’s sole goal-scorer on the night, striker Ellen White.
Staring through Houghton as she got into position was U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher. Replacing the legendary Hope Solo for her first World Cup, Naeher was dubbed the weakest link in this strongly armored U.S. team. One save or one mistake for Naeher would decide her team’s fate, especially since her defensive back line struggled to thwart England’s direct and formulaic attack throughout the second half.
The referee blew the whistle. Up ran Houghton, and down went Naeher as the ball nestled in her grasp after she dove to the right side of the goal. Within seconds, a jubilant Naeher was surrounded by her teammates, knowing her save put her team into the final.
Naeher made three important saves on the night, and England crumbled in the remaining minutes of the match, getting defender Millie Bright sent off in the process after a second yellow card. The U.S. substitutes ran onto the field after the final whistle to celebrate the 2-1 victory, marking the team’s third-straight appearance in a Women’s World Cup final.
One substitute in particular, star winger Megan Rapinoe, was omitted from the semifinal’s starting lineup because of a hamstring strain after a stellar two-goal performance against France in the quarterfinals.
Her replacement, forward Christen Press, took advantage of the spotlight and headed in the game’s first goal after a towering cross from defender Kelley O’Hara. Press’ powerful header inspired a surge of U.S. chances in the first half, with balls consistently flying in and out of the 18-yard box.
A swift response from England came in the 19th minute, after a beautiful cross-field ball from defender Rachel Daly unlocked the U.S. defense as White redirected a cross past Naeher to equalize. As potent as England became on the attack as the match progressed, the team’s defending was frantic and sloppy.
The U.S. began to pounce on every second ball with the sole intention of redirecting the attack and retaining possession. Seeing a glimmer of space in the 31st minute, midfielder Lindsey Horan sent in a perfect ball that found the head of forward Alex Morgan, who redirected it into the back of the net to take the lead.
Although the U.S. still held its 2-1 lead, the team allowed England to trickle back into the match in the latter stages. Video review disallowed a second goal from White late in the second half after she was called offside. The back-and-forth attacking flow started to fizzle out as each team played more conservatively in the final minutes.
U.S. midfielder Rose Lavelle limped off the field with an apparent hamstring injury in the 68th minute after an inspired performance with the dirtiest of nutmegs. Her absence from this Saturday’s final will be a huge loss for the U.S., especially since Rapinoe’s availability is still up in the air.
The U.S. will play either the Netherlands or Sweden on Sunday. Both countries face off Wednesday at noon to secure a spot in the Women’s World Cup final.