Soccer

Women’s World Cup: U.S. can’t afford a letdown against surging England

United States’ Megan Rapinoe, center, celebrates after scoring her side’s second goal during the Wom
Megan Rapinoe celebrates with her U.S. teammates after scoring a second goal against France in a Women’s World Cup quarterfinal match on Friday.
(Francisco Seco / Associated Press)

Christen Press has a theory as to why the U.S. women’s national team has been so successful.

“The team rises to the occasion,” she said Monday. “Throughout the history — watching the team, being on the team, playing for the team — we’ve done a great job at flipping pressure and making it inspiration, making it motivation.

“When the stakes are the highest, when the games and the tournaments are the biggest, you have to find another level in yourself to win. And if you don’t find it, you don’t win.”

In that case Press and her teammates might have to push all the way through the penthouse Tuesday when they meet England in a Women’s World Cup semifinal, where the stakes will definitely be high and the opponent the most determined they’ve faced in this tournament.

“It’s win or go home at this point,” goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher said.

First the U.S. must regroup. After cruising through a three-game group stage in which they set a World Cup record with an 18-0 goal differential, the Americans gutted out a pair of 2-1 victories in their first two games of the elimination rounds.

Coach Jill Ellis called the last one, an emotional win against the host French in Paris, “the most intense match I’ve ever been a part of.”

The U.S. players have said there’s no chance of a letdown Tuesday although they admitted last week’s quarterfinal against France, one they had mentally prepared for all year, felt like a final.

England appears headed in the other direction. Unimpressive in their first two games of group play, the Lionesses have taken off since then, shutting out Japan — a finalist in the last two Women’s World Cup — then eliminating Cameroon and Norway by identical 3-0 scores in the knockout stage, going 371 minutes without conceding a goal.

Statistically it’s a dead heat: The U.S. is ranked No. 1 in the world, England is No. 3. The two teams are unbeaten in this tournament, are 1-2 in goals scored and 1-2 in fewest goals allowed. The U.S. has scored in the opening 12 minutes of each of its five games; England has scored in the first 14 minutes four times.

England has also matched the Americans in confidence and cockiness in the tournament, all the while observing proper English manners.

“They’re the best team in the world without a shadow of a doubt,” coach Phil Neville said of the U.S. “Their record is phenomenal. But I never worry about the opposition. We concentrate on what we can do.

“That’s what we’ve been saying to the players. Don’t get to the semifinals and have any regrets. Don’t get to the semifinals and think afterward I should’ve, could’ve, would’ve. Get to the semifinal and get out there and play your best. I want to see smiles and I want to see freedom and I want to see us play like we can.”

The U.S. and England also have arguably the two best players in the tournament in versatile English right back Lucy Bronze and U.S. forward Megan Rapinoe, who figure to be matched against one another for much of Tuesday’s game.

Rapinoe has all four U.S. goals in the knockout rounds and five for the tournament, tying her with teammate Alex Morgan and England’s Ellen White for the World Cup lead. White has scored in each of England’s last three games.

Where the U.S. has a huge edge, however, is in experience. Although the team includes 11 World Cup debutantes, it also has 12 World Cup champions and six players who have played in multiple World Cup finals.

The Americans, three-time world champions, are unbeaten in 15 consecutive Women’s World Cup games, winning the last 10.

England’s women have never won a major international tournament, falling in the semifinals of the 2015 Women’s World Cup and 2017 European Championships.

“Looking back to 2015, we never really expected to get to that semifinal,” said England captain Steph Houghton. “We know we are in a better position now and we can be calm and collected. The key is for us to carry on doing what we are doing well.

“If we do the things we are good at, we have a great chance.”

England has lost just one of three games against the U.S. since 2016, playing the Americans to a draw to win the SheBelieves Cup in March, a result Neville still considers significant.

“That game gave us great confidence and belief, the way we were playing, the style of playing,” the former Manchester United defender said. “But I suppose the real thing that came out of March was that we won that tournament. Because you go to tournaments to win.

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“We were the ones that stood on that platform. We were the ones that held up the trophy. And that gives us great confidence. When you win something and you stand on that platform, it gives you the taste of wanting to do it again. And this time the prize is even bigger.”

So while the U.S. is focusing on raising its play a level and winning on Tuesday, the English have already decided what their World Cup victory — one they’ve been planning for the last year — will mean.

“Twelve months ago we set out our objectives,” Neville said. “All I wanted my players to say was that they wanted to win the World Cup. But they said they wanted more, to create a name people would relate to, badass women.

“They were thinking bigger and that really knocked me out of my stride. I think we’re getting to that legacy moment.”