The best team, on this particular day, did not win. The team with the bigger heart did.
There was no miracle needed today. The United States women, though thoroughly outplayed during periods of the game, were steadfast along the back line and Hope Solo played another solid game.
After watching France play during the group stage, I labeled them a dark-horse candidate to advance far in the tournament. Despite the loss, the youthful French displayed an excellent chemistry amongst themselves, pinging the ball around at will and running off each other, causing major headaches for the US midfielders.
The US got on the board early in the ninth minute on their lone solid chance in the first half. They worked the ball nicely down the left flank, with Carly Lloyd back-heeling a cheeky pass along to Heather O’Reilly, who used her speed to get around the French defender and slide the ball near-post to Lauren Cheney. Cheney, who beat her defender to the near post, simply flicked out her right foot and guided the ball into the opposite corner on a brilliant first touch.
France controlled must of the first half with their possession. But for all the runs and potential France could conjure up, it seemed the US put up a force field around the 18-yard box. It was impenetrable. Much like the Under Armour slogan “Protect This House,” the US defense was stout and contained the French attack, only allowing shots from outside the box. Apart from a free-kick opportunity where Bompastor hit the woodwork, Hope Solo had little to worry about.
Even with France creating more chances and cranking out more shots, the U.S. maintained their 1-0 lead heading into the locker room at halftime.
Pia Sundhage, coach for the U.S., made no moves to her lineup and came back out with the same 11 to start the second half. Right from the whistle, the red, white and blue looked incredibly sluggish. Unable to string more than two and three consecutive passes together, they spent a good portion of the first 30 minutes chasing the ball and defending the fort.
It was only a matter of time before France struck. With the ball being played in from the left side, French winger Thiney ran onto the ball as it came in. Solo, anticipating a touch from Thiney, was caught with all her momentum carrying her toward the near post. The ball cleared Thiney’s head without being touched and bounced off the far post and into the net.
Realizing her team needed a jump start, Megan Rapinoe was inserted into the lineup to replace Carly Lloyd in the midfield. Rapinoe, the fireball, the feisty sparkplug, made an immediate impact in the game. Unafraid to take on defenders and work to possess the ball, Rapinoe’s calm demeanor brushed off on her teammates.
Knowing this could potentially be her last chance at a World Cup title, Abby Wambach, the leader and voice of this team, took it upon herself to will her team to another victory. In the 79th minute, Lauren Cheney delivered yet another perfect corner, and with Abby being Abby, she came flying in on the far post and thundered the ball into the back of the net with another authoritative header. From that point on, it was all team USA.
Rapinoe and fellow substitute Alex Morgan connected for the US’s third and final goal on a brilliant first-touch pass from Rapinoe who saw Morgan streaking toward the box. Morgan took a few dribbles and as composed as veteran player, calmly lofted the ball over the French keeper and into the back of the net.
The heart this team displays can’t be stated enough. There is this unwavering confidence that even while they aren’t playing their best game, they always find a way to come out on top.
It came down to the simple fact that the U.S. finished off their scoring chances while France did not.
Credit the U.S. defense, who knew they would be in for a long game. They all but shut down France’s top scorers, limiting them to few quality chances.
The US showed a lot of fatigue in that second half, playing sloppily and giving the ball away far too often. Their off-the-ball movement was lacking as they resorted to playing long ball after long ball, only to have France send it right back into their defensive end.
In the end, they’ve accomplished what they wanted to do for the past 12 years. They’ve made the final. Japan stands between them and their goal. Their control their own destiny.
It’s going to take a much better effort to defeat Japan, who has played some great soccer in this World Cup.
With a few days to rest up and prepare, the World Cup title is theirs for the taking. It’s just up to them to take it.