Carli Lloyd headed in a goal in her 200th international appearance as the United States advanced to the FIFA Women's World Cup semifinals with a 1-0 victory over China on Friday night in Ottawa.
The result sets up a highly anticipated clash between the world's top two teams on Tuesday in Montreal. And after turning in a confident, composed display against China, the U.S. finally looks capable of beating top-ranked Germany.
That's not to say it will definitely happen. Even after playing 120 grueling minutes against France and going through the extreme stress of a penalty shootout, Germany will represent by far the most formidable opposition the U.S. has faced in Canada. But if coach Jill Ellis learns the lessons of the China game, the Americans could cause Germany problems.
Lloyd noted the unified team effort in defeating China (via Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl):
If so, it will start with midfield. With Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday suspended because of accumulated yellow cards, Ellis drafted Morgan Brian and Kelley O'Hara into her starting lineup. Brian partnered Lloyd in central midfield, and O'Hara played on the right, sending Tobin Heath to Rapinoe's favored left-sided role.
The changes worked very well on nearly all conceivable levels. Most importantly, Brian played a deeper, more defensive role than Holiday, freeing Lloyd to attack without saddling her with too much defensive responsibility. Defense is not Lloyd's best attribute anyway, so it was little surprise that Brian's disciplined defensive work gave the U.S. midfield more balance than at any previous point in the World Cup.
Lloyd and Brian are teammates with the Houston Dash in the National Women's Soccer League. Their understanding was key to the Americans' success Friday night, as Graham Hays noted at espnW.com:
With Lloyd and Holiday next to each other, it felt like the roles of the two central midfielders were ill-defined, which left both stuck near the back line. With Brian clearly prepared to tuck in behind Lloyd when the latter went forward, Lloyd did exactly that. The final product wasn't always perfect, but even an imperfect product was a welcome change in that it came on the front foot. The Houston Dash teammates, albeit briefly, looked in sync.
Holiday is an outstanding player, but her partnership with Lloyd in central midfield has not produced the kind of football the U.S. needs to beat a top side like Germany and win the World Cup. With that in mind, Ellis has a dilemma ahead.
Ahead of the semifinals, it seems unlikely that the coach would dare to start both Holiday and Lloyd. The combination has simply not worked, and Brian's performance in a more defensive role was too important to the team to bench her. Holiday might be the better attacker, but with Lloyd serving as captain and scoring the winner against China, it's hard to see her losing her starting place.
Continuing on praising the collaborative effort, both Lloyd and Ellis commended Brian on her performance (via Goal USA's Thomas Floyd and ESPN's Jeff Carlisle, respectively):
On the other hand, Rapinoe seems certain to retake her place in the starting XI. When she's been on the pitch, she has been the best, most creative American attacker. Benching her now would be a bad idea.
But O'Hara impressed on the right, combining well with Ali Krieger and thrilling fans with her hustling, all-action style. Ellis might consider giving her another chance, though that decision is less vital than the choice she has to make in central midfield.
That's because in central midfield, the stakes are too high. With Brian partnering Lloyd, the U.S. midfield was instantly more cohesive. Passing and movement were both much-improved, and the team no longer had a gaping hole in its midsection on counterattacks.
The U.S. might have scored more goals in the previous round against Colombia—and also in the group stage against Australia—but this was the team's best overall performance. If Ellis wants that to continue, she should not pair Lloyd and Holiday in central midfield again.
In Germany, the U.S. will encounter its best opponent at the World Cup. The Germans survived a scare against France in the quarterfinals on Friday, winning on penalties (5-4) after Les Bleues had taken a second-half lead. But make no mistake: This is the world's top-ranked team for a reason, and it's highly likely that Germany will be immaculately prepared to face the U.S.
That means the Americans must play their best game, with the right players in the right positions. And even then, the U.S. will need another strong defensive performance and perhaps a dash of luck. But when it comes to selecting the right lineup, Ellis should know what she needs to do.