Welcome to the World Cup semifinals, England. Should you have any questions — given no one from your country has made it this far since 1990, I’m sure you do — feel free to ask the U.S. women. Or Germany.
This is pretty much a scheduled stop on their World Cup itinerary, with the U.S. reaching every semifinal since the tournament began in 1991 and the Germans making their fifth trip. Defending World Cup champion Japan may have been late to the powerhouse party, but it now has back-to-back semifinal appearances.
There’s a reason the favorites are usually the last ones standing at a tournament like the World Cup. It’s a hard four weeks, and the longer it goes, the more the weaknesses of the also-rans are exposed.
If a team has had trouble scoring, it will eventually pay the price. Yes, Canada, that’s directed at you. If a team is young or inexperienced, a mistake will eventually be made. Sorry, Australia. And if a team played over its head, it will eventually be brought back to reality. Good effort, though, China.
The teams that make it to the final four are not only good, they’re resourceful and mentally strong, finding ways to win when other teams would find a way to lose.
“At this stage of tournament, I’m not sure there are underdogs,” England coach Mark Sampson said after the Three Lionesses withstood Canada’s furious, 53-minute press to find an equalizer for a 2-1 win. “Every game it’s the team who delivers the best on the field and finds a way to get themselves through.”
They won’t have a choice because everything up until now? That was the easy part.
Take the Germany-U.S. matchup on Tuesday night. With apologies to France, Germany’s opponent in the quarterfinals, it’s this game that ought to be the final. (Here’s a fun fact for you: Germany and the U.S. have never met in the final at either the World Cup or the Olympics.)
Germany and the United States are the top two teams in the world — Germany ended the Americans’ seven-year streak at No. 1 in December — and most expect whoever wins this game will be lifting the trophy amid a shower of confetti on Sunday.
Germany has had the most potent offense of the tournament, its 20 goals almost double that of France, the next-most prolific team. Celia Sasic (six) and Anja Mittag (five) outscored 14 teams on their own.
But the Germans also haven’t run into a brick wall yet, and that’s essentially what the U.S. defense is.
It’s allowed one measly goal this whole tournament, and that was 423 minutes ago. That’s a shutout streak of just over seven hours, in case you don’t want to do the math, a stretch so long the ageless Christie Rampone was still in her 30s when it began.
Now, this may not seem like such a surprise, given that Hope Solo is considered the best goalkeeper in the world. Except that Solo has had little to do with the streak.
The forwards and midfielders aren’t afraid of doing the dirty work of defense, and Julie Johnston, Becky Sauerbrunn, Ali Krieger and Meghan Klingenberg may as well be human vacuum cleaners for the way they suck up opponents’ chances.
Sure, there’s been plenty angst about the Americans’ scoring woes and struggles to finish. But the truth is, the defense is so stingy the U.S. hasn’t needed much from the offense.
“You can call them deficiencies, but we’ve gotten the result that we’ve needed to get in every single game we’ve played,” Klingenberg said. “If we keep teams to zero goals and only score one per game, I wouldn’t say that’s a deficiency, I’d say that’s winning.”
The Japanese would nod their heads at that. The Nadeshiko haven’t put up big numbers at either end of the field. But they’re so technically sound you just know they’ll eventually find a way to capitalize on an opportunity.
That could prove tough for England, which clearly studied Jose Mourinho’s bus parking manual before the tournament. England also faces the possibility of playing without goalkeeper Karen Bardsley, who left the quarterfinal after an allergic reaction left her eyes so swollen she couldn’t see.
No matter, Sampson said. England will be ready for anything.
“From the start of the tournament, we’ve had a great belief in ourselves,” he said. “We’ll (dig) as deep as we need to go to keep this team into this tournament.”
As the semifinal veterans already know, once you get this far, you may as well go all the way.
This article was republished with permission from the original author, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today.