U.S. got a bit of their groove back in quarterfinal win over China

 

By necessity, because Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday were out one match with yellow card suspensions, the U.S. was forced into a new starting lineup in their quarterfinal game here. The payoff was big. Bigger, perhaps, than the 1-0 win over China.

The addition of Amy Rodriguez, Kelley O’Hara and Morgan Brian in the lineup sparked a U.S. attack that was faster on the ball and more eager to attack China higher up the field. For a long time, this U.S. team has searched for way to assert their essentially aggressive mentality, and that was far more apparent Friday night than what the team has served up so far.

"Freedom," is what Carli Lloyd said was the difference, though why that freedom to just play has been so hard to drum up remains a curious problem.

Indeed, this has been one of the longest, strangest, more confusing World Cup runs ever put forth by this storied U.S. team, but here they are. With so many eyes on them, they’re not finding a way to captivate and thrill their audience. They are as much a victim of their own past success, not that they can’t handle the pressure. They say they live for it. They just want to do more and better with that pressure.

Remember the last World Cup quarterfinal match they played? It was a game in which a soaring Abby Wambach connected on a brilliant Rapinoe service to turn back Brazil in the 2011 Women’s World Cup in Germany. It was a highlight that, crystallized, allowed the U.S. women to spark huge interest in themselves and women’s soccer. These are the kinds of epic moments Abby Wambach & Co. are used to creating.

In Canada, that moment has not come, and it has unleashed the necessary evaluation of a U.S. side that — with all eyes trained on them — look far more mortal than the soaring history makers we expect them to be.

Still, the U.S. women have done their job. They have landed in the semifinals of the World Cup for the seventh time, making the Americans the only team in World Cup history to get this deep in every World Cup ever staged. For one night, the critics are being asked to take a back seat.

"This game was huge for our confidence going into our semifinal match," U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd said.

Lloyd & Co. U.S. needed something to feel good about heading into Tuesday’s semifinal against Germany and Lloyd said they got it. With her 65th international goal in her 200th career cap, Lloyd scored the game winner against China and, more important, gave her strongest performance since the Algarve Cup back in March.

Maybe that’s why the U.S. women — after obvious self-doubt and frustration the past weeks and months — wanted to celebrate. They had more than enough reasons, considering their secure passage to the semis and, also, some of the notable milestones reached by Lloyd and Hope Solo, who notched her 134 career win to become the all-time leading winning goalkeeper. In her last match, Solo surpassed Briana Scurry as the all-time most capped goalkeeper.  

"We celebrated yesterday for that one," Jill Ellis said about Solo’s two career marks set this week.

"She’s the best goalkeeper in the world. She’s a highly talented and highly motivated. On the field and off the field she has a real good focus," Ellis said.

Solo has been stellar this World Cup, standing in behind a U.S. defense that has now shut out their opponents over the past 423 minutes. No team has scored against the U.S. since Australia, so no matter how much the U.S. struggles to put away their chances, they are in this tournament. Julie Johnston and Becky Sauerbrunn have turned in the best and most consistently excellent performances on the U.S. team and all teams in the tournament.

Last night, Johnston’s service to Lloyd was another prime example of how much this 23-year-old has meant to the U.S., not just on the back line but on set plays and assisting on the offensive side, too. Johnston is proof that the U.S. has more than their share of young, talented and top-level international players, it’s just a question of how and when to get these players into the U.S. team rotation.

That is a question for the future of the U.S. women’s team. Those issues will be decided sometime later on: Does the U.S. need a new style, new talent, new direction? With Abby Wambach’s retirement looming — this is her last World Cup and you have to figure that if the U.S. were to win this 2015 World Cup, a satisfied Wambach may pass on the Olympics in 2016.

But for now, the U.S. is assured of at least two more World Cup games. If they find a way to beat Germany, they’ll go on to play in the final at B.C. Place in Vancouver on July 5, and if they fall to the No. 1-ranked team, they will head to Edmonton to play for third place.

The U.S. team is alive. They are celebrating. They’re where they want to be, no matter how they got here.