Alex Morgan celebrates her winning goal on her 30th birthday.
(CNN)- For the ability to rise to the occasion, for the aptitude to turn a blind eye to pressure and produce on the grandest of stages, there is still no team quite like the US as the defending champion saw off a talented England team 2-1 to reach the Women’s World Cup final.
England’s Ellen White had negated Christen Press’s early opener, but on her 30th birthday Alex Morgan headed home before the break to score what proved to be the winner.
Though challenged by the world’s finest teams in the knockouts, the USWNT remains firmly on its perch. But England will be kept awake at night by thoughts of what might have been — what if a White goal had not been ruled out for offside, what if captain Steph Houghton had not missed a penalty in the final 10 minutes.
But England, losers in a major semifinal for the third successive time, were not quite at the US’ level and the frustration of missing opportunities to level was evident when Millie Bright was awarded a red card in the dying minutes.
Unless the Netherlands or Sweden — the second semifinal takes place Wednesday — can achieve the unexpected in Sunday’s final in the same stadium, the US will retain its title, accentuating the country’s dominance of the women’s game.
It is rare for such an anticipated match to live up to its promise, but this semifinal between the No.1 and No.3 ranked teams in the world certainly did. It was frantic, it was high-octane and it was a magnificent advert for the game.
The announcement of the team hinted that this was going to be an exhilarating night. Megan Rapinoe, the match winner in both the last-16 and quarterfinal ties, started on the substitutes’ bench, to the surprise of many.
After much of the pre-match talk centered on Lucy Bronze going head-to-head with Rapinoe it was Press the England player — dubbed the best in the world by her manager Phil Neville — had to shackle.
Though unexpected, were Jill Ellis’ reasons tactical it was understandable given that Rapinoe, after three ACL injuries, hasn’t the pace or endurance to deal with Bronze’s lung-busting darts down the flank for 90 minutes.
Ellis also started with Lindsey Horan, the US’ most imposing midfielder and the NWSL’s 2018 player of the year, but absent from the starting line-up in the two knockout matches. Again, the US’ game plan worked, though in the closing stages the USWNT had to hold on.
England also made changes. England’s first-choice goalkeeper Karen Bardsley did not feature because of a hamstring injury so Carly Telford stepped in to make her second major international appearance. Arguably Telford should have done better in stopping both headers, but it was a match where both keepers made brilliant saves.
Alyssa Naeher, a player who has had to withstand much criticism this tournament, played her part in victory — producing a stunning first-half save from a Keira Walsh thunderbolt and, of course, stopping Houghton’s penalty but, in truth, it was a poor effort from England’s defender.