Julie Johnston has been an integral part of a solid U.S. defense that has given up only 13 shots on goal, and only one goal, in six Women’s World Cup games.
So when she made her first massive mistake of the tournament in a semifinal game against Germany on Tuesday, Johnston’s teammates rallied to her side.
“It’s a team sport and the team really stepped up for me,” an emotional Johnston said. “I really can’t thank them enough.”
Her error came early in the second half of a scoreless game when Johnston, 23, playing in her first World Cup, pulled down Alexandra Popp from behind in the penalty area. Romanian referee Teodora Albon could have waved a red card, expelling Johnston for impeding an obvious scoring opportunity.
Instead she let Johnston off with a yellow card. But there was still the matter of the penalty kick by Celia Sasic, the World Cup’s leading scorer with six goals, including two from that spot.
As U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo paced in front of the net, Johnston said many of her teammates filed by with words of encouragement.
“We got it, we still have time,” Johnston said they told her. “Anything that you need them to say, [they] said to me.”
But Johnston said no one had her back more than back line partner Becky Sauerbrunn, who didn’t have to say anything.
“Seeing her look at me and smile really made me take a deep breath and kind of just reevaluate that we’re still in this game,” Johnston said. “The emotion just to think that it was a possibility that I hurt the team and it was on my shoulders, yeah it was really hard.”
It was the wily Solo who provided the biggest pick-me-up for her young teammate, stalling for time in an effort to freeze Sasic. And it worked, with Sasic pushing her kick wide of the left goal post, getting Johnston off the hook.
“Hope wanted to take as much time as possible to get [Sasic] to think more about it,” Abby Wambach said. “It’s very difficult to make a penalty kick if the keeper stalls.”
The U.S. beat Germany, 2-0, to advance to Sunday’s final against Japan, which was a 2-1 winner over England in a semifinal on Wednesday.
Coach Jill Ellis’ conservative game plans were criticized, even by some players, when the U.S. was stumbling through the group stage last month. But in the biggest game of the tournament she came up with her most inspired strategy, starting Alex Morgan as a lone forward, packing the midfield and using her team’s superior speed to attack Germany ferociously.
“Jill rolled the dice starting three central midfielders for the first time,” Wambach said. “I thought it was a brilliant move. You live and die by these decisions for a coach.”
Wambach applauded the game plan even though it meant she started on the bench for the second consecutive game.
“My role is definitely different,” said Wambach, international soccer’s all-time leading scorer yet a part-time player at the World Cup, coming off the sidelines as a late-game substitute three times. “I’m not upset. I accept my role.
“I accept the fact that my coach trusts me to go in at the end of the game [to] either get a goal or hold a lead. That’s a role that I understand.”
Hardly a Solo performance
Solo’s shutout Tuesday was her 10th in World Cup play and her fifth in a row in this tournament, where she hasn’t given up a goal in 513 minutes.
But Solo hasn’t faced many tests either, thanks to a defense that has asked her to make only 12 saves. And that defense’s best performance came Tuesday when Germany, the highest-scoring team in the tournament, managed only one soft shot on goal, none in the final 80 minutes.
“It’s not just our goalkeeper and our back four,” Ellis said. “This team has embraced the accountability and the responsibility of defending in every line. It’s something we ask of them and they deliver.
“We’ve got gritty players in the back. We’ve got sophisticated players in the back. They do a great job of reading the game [and] shutting down the opponent.”