The ineffective performance of the U.S. attack throughout most of this Women's World Cup has left Coach Jill Ellis defending herself against criticism her game plans are outdated and predictable.
Then came Friday's quarterfinal, a 1-0 win over China, in which the Americans turned in their best performance of the tournament. Afterward Ellis said the strategy hadn't changed — but the execution had.
"It's not like suddenly this is a different game plan," she said. "Keeping possession, change of point, tempo — all these things are stressed in every game. Because at this level all those things, all those components, are important to be successful.
"This team steps up in big moments. And they recognized we needed to step up. It wasn't anything different than they've been directed to do before."
Ellis did make one change that proved important. With regular midfielders Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday suspended with two yellow cards, Ellis used Morgan Brian as a holding player in what essentially became a diamond midfield. That freed Carli Lloyd to spend more time orchestrating the attack and she responded, pushing deeper into the offensive end and scoring the game's only goal in the 51st minute.
"I defended more than I've ever defended," Brian said. "And it worked."
Abby Wambach, playing in her fourth World Cup under her fourth coach, came to Ellis' defense after Friday's game, saying the fact the U.S. is unbeaten and in the semifinals is proof Ellis' strategies have been successful.
"Our coaching staff, they make good decisions. And I trust their [decisions]," she said. "They're purposeful. It's really important that they stick to their plan because their plan has been working."
Refs deserve a red card
Wambach played just four minutes off the bench in the quarterfinal, but she almost didn't get that.
FIFA considered suspending her for comments she made about French referee Stephanie Frappart, who gave Rapinoe and Holiday the cautions that got them suspended.
Wambach quickly apologized and FIFA let her off with only a warning. But that doesn't change the fact that her larger point was right: the officiating in this tournament has been unworthy of a World Cup.
Frappart was correct in handing the yellows to the two Americans — Rapinoe's was for an accumulation of fouls and some apparent back talk to the official — as she was for awarding two penalty kicks to the U.S. in the same game.
But New Zealand was burned by two poor calls in group play, including a hand-ball call that led to its elimination from the tournament. And Canada won its opener on a stoppage-time penalty kick awarded by Ukrainian referee Kateryna Monzul for a dubious foul.
In the biggest game of the tournament, Germany's quarterfinal win over France, Canadian referee Carol Anne Chenard seemed unable to keep up with the action, once even failing to get out of the way of a French free kick.
She also missed two calls on Germany's Anja Mittag — the first an apparent hand ball and the second a late studs-up tackle that earned only a caution — then awarded Germany the penalty kick that tied the game by calling France's Amel Majri for a hand ball. (That call appeared defendable though it was close.)
The inconsistent officiating here has focused new attention on a 16-year-old FIFA rule that mandates only female officials can work the Women's World Cup. The intent of the rule is laudable: Create opportunities for female officials to gain experience and grow.
But until there are enough quality referees to meet demand — the World Cup started with 22 referees, 44 assistant referees and seven support referees from 48 nations — perhaps FIFA should simply settle for the best referees, regardless of gender.