Germany was the heavy favorite heading into the World Cup, and little has happened to change that.
The No. 1 team in the world started by hanging a 10-spot on Ivory Coast, and has added 10 more goals since then. Celia Sasic and Anja Mittag have outscored more than half the teams in the field on their own. The Germans proved their toughness by beating France on penalties.
But there is a way for the U.S. women to beat Germany in Tuesday night’s semifinals. And it only takes the first half to do it.
OK, two first halves.
See, France outplayed Germany in the first half of their quarterfinal, providing the blueprint for how to beat the two-time World Cup champions. And the Americans came out blazing in the first 45 minutes against China, displaying the attack and energy they’ve been lacking all tournament.
Find a way to combine that, and the U.S. will be heading to Sunday’s final. Likely lifting the trophy for the third time, too.
“I think against Germany, you have to terrorize them on the flanks. They are not fast and that is a strength of the United States, so you have to exploit it,” Kate Markgraf, a defender on that 1999 U.S. team that won the World Cup and now an analyst for ESPN, said Monday. “That’s how France punished them.”
Granted, the U.S. doesn’t have an Elodie Thomis, who had the Germans on the run so much a few are still trying to catch their breath. With her speed on the outside, Thomis was able to feed the ball to Louisa Necib, Eugenie Le Sommer and Marie-Laure Delieand put the German defense on its heels.
But if U.S. coach Jill Ellis starts a lineup similar to the one she did against China – or least keeps a similar shape – the Americans will give the Germans all they can handle. And then some.
Not to get all inside soccer, but with Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday suspended, Ellis was forced to adjust her lineup and the changes gave the U.S. more speed and chances to attack. Carli Lloyd played higher, returning to her natural position of attacking midfielder instead of bogging her down near the backline, where she had little chance to create or score.
In addition, Ellis put Morgan Brian in the defensive midfield spot Lloyd had been in and played Kelley O’Hara on the wing. This meant that, when the Americans got the ball back, they were closer to China’s side of the field.
Sure enough, the Americans were on the verge of having squatter’s rights they spent so much time there. Lloyd was a particular nuisance, and eventually scored the game-winner.
“Pressing teams. What the U.S. does best — and you look back at the history of all the teams — it’s pressing,” Lloyd said. “It’s putting teams on their heels. We don’t want to give teams respect. We don’t want to make teams feel that we are nervous. We want to make teams nervous.”
China is no Germany, though, and Ellis can’t afford to not put Rapinoe and Holiday back in the lineup. But she can’t afford to revert back to that stodgy old game plan, either.
The biggest dilemma is what to do about Lloyd and Holiday.
“They’re both attacking personalities,” Ellis said. “It’s pick and choose their moments because, obviously, Germany is a tremendous transition team. It’s that measure and that balance but yeah, we’d like to get them involved in our attack.”
So keep Lloyd where she was against China, and slide Holiday, who’s the better defender of the two, to the back of the midfield. Keep O’Hara in the starting lineup, and take Tobin Heath out. As for the forwards, pair Sydney Leroux with Alex Morgan.
Yes, Abby Wambach has one of the best heads the game has ever seen, and winning balls in the air is going to be key. But better to bring her in in the second half, when the Germans are tired and her legs – and head – are fresh.
Above all, don’t lose that swagger the Americans have had since the China game.
“There’s a different air and different feeling with the group,” Lloyd said. “We’re going to go into this game way more confident and we’re going to put Germany on their heels.”
They know the game plan. Now it’s just a matter of making it work.
This article was republished with permission from the original author, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today.