Carli Lloyd was right.
To break out of its offensive lethargy and truly put a stamp on this Women’s World Cup, the U.S. had to first break out of its comfort zone, she said. It had to take risks, had to try new things.
In the quarterfinal against China the U.S. did all of that, giving Amy Rodriguez her first start of the tournament up front and using Morgan Brian as a holding midfielder in the back, clearing Lloyd to roam free. The result was a tournament-high 17 shots, a 1-0 win — on a second-half goal by Lloyd — and a spot for the U.S. in the semifinals.
“That was the first game all tournament where we put them on their back heels,” Lloyd said. “We want to make other teams nervous, not vice versa. That was huge for our confidence.”
The Americans are going to need a lot more than confidence Tuesday, when they meet a powerful German team in a semifinal that is shaping up as a study in contrasts between two unbeaten teams. And this time a few lineup changes might not be enough to get the U.S. over that hump.
The U.S. has survived to reach the final four — “just kind of finding a way to win,” defender Lori Chalupny said — while Germany has bludgeoned the opposition, leading the tournament with 20 goals and 59 shots on goal, both more than double the totals of any other team.
The Germans scored seven goals in the first 75 minutes of the tournament. The U.S. has seven goals in three weeks here.
The Americans, conversely, have won with defense, with goalkeeper Hope Solo allowing a tournament-low one goal — none in the last four games or 423 minutes. But the U.S.’ young back line has never faced an attack like that of Germany, whose top two strikers, Celia Sasic (six goals) and Anja Mittag (five), have combined to outscore every other team in the tournament by themselves.
Even the routes the teams took to the semifinals have been different. The top-ranked Germans routed No. 5 Sweden, then beat No. 3 France on penalty kicks in the knockout stages. The U.S. hasn’t beaten a team ranked higher than 10th in the FIFA world rankings and didn’t meet a group winner in the elimination rounds, beating No. 28 Colombia and No. 16 China.
None of that will matter Tuesday, though, when both teams take the field. But if you’re looking for an edge, here’s one: While Germany has been the most dominant team of the tournament, the U.S. says it has yet to play its best game.
“I would rate it a B-plus. Because we can still score more goals,” Abby Wambach said after the quarterfinal with China. “And in my opinion, if you’ve got to play two more games you might as well want to play in the final.”
The alternative, of course, for the U.S. is finishing the tournament in the third-place game, which is where two of Wambach’s three previous World Cups have ended.
Wambach, international soccer’s all-time leading scorer, has already won world player of the year honors as well as two Olympic gold medals. A World Cup title, however, has eluded her.
“She’s been kind of like a big sister to me,” forward Alex Morgan said of Wambach. “Knowing that this is most likely her last tournament, obviously it’s very important for her. She basically has the best resume any player could ask for. Except for the fact that she hasn’t gotten a World Cup.
“So that’s huge.”
Wambach, 35, has looked her age in plodding through this tournament, where she’s been more of a vocal leader than one on the field, starting just three games, missing on a penalty kick and scoring one goal.
But how to use Wambach against Germany is just one of many vexing issues U.S. Coach Jill Ellis faces.
Rodriguez’s energy and pace sparked the U.S. attack against China while Wambach played just four minutes off the bench. Still, it would be a gutsy call to leave the Americans’ most accomplished and iconic player out of the starting lineup in a World Cup semifinal against a wily and physical opponent.
And what to do with veteran U.S. midfielders Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday? Both missed the China quarterfinal with two yellow cards, and without them Ellis switched to a modified diamond formation in the middle, with Lloyd on the attacking point and the 22-year-old Brian, the team’s youngest player, on the defending one.
Will Ellis throw Brian back out there against Germany when she has Holiday and her 128 career appearances available?
“Collectively we had a game plan,” Lloyd, who has scored the last two U.S. goals, said of the quarterfinal. “And you could tell.”
The result was the most complete 90 minutes of the tournament for the U.S. — but not the kind of dominating, signature performance the Americans typically turn in on the world stage.
That game may still be out there. And if it is, Tuesday night would be a good time for the U.S. to find it.