USA shuts down Germany’s vaunted attack, escapes with 2-0 win

(CBS Sports)-  A place in the World Cup final was at stake when the best two teams in the world met on Tuesday night. And for the first 45 minutes, the pace was unrelenting and frantic as both the US and Germany rushed up and down the pitch. But after a scoreless first half, the game was settled in the cruelest of ways in the final 45 minutes. The outcome ended up coming down to two penalty kicks and two decisions by the referee. All four — the two penalties and the two decisions — went in favor of the US.

And the US managed to topple Germany, 2-0. Now, the US is onto the World Cup final. On Sunday, the US will face either Japan — which beat the US in the 2011 World Cup final — or England.

Though the US was clearly the better side in the first 45 minutes of the game, it was unable to put one past goalkeeper Nadine Angerer, who denied a Julie Johnston header and an Alex Morgan breakthrough in the first half. And, despite taking it to Germany, the US was locked in a scoreless draw at halftime.

Then, came the first decision by the referee. In the 59th minute, US centerback Julie Johnston struggled with a bouncing ball in the box. A German player looked to capitalize on the mistake. Before she could, Johnston yanked her down from behind. The penalty call was an easy one, but instead of giving Johnston a red card, the referee opted for a yellow card.

Then, Celia Sasic shanked the penalty kick wide of the goal. Sasic, like the referee, gave the US — and Johnston — a huge break.

About 10 minutes later, the US was awarded a penalty kick after Alex Morgan was knocked to the ground at the edge of the box. While Morgan was undoubtedly fouled, she appeared to have been jarred outside the box. Still, the referee signaled toward the penalty spot.

Carli Lloyd slotted the penalty past Angerer, giving the US a 1-0 lead in the 69th minute.

While those two decisions and those two penalties played a significant role in the final outcome, the US outplayed Germany for the full 90 minutes of the game and deserved to advance to the final. Not only did the US’ offense take on the appearance of a menacing attack, but the US’ defense — the main reason why the US advanced to the semifinals — also managed to shut down a German attack that had scored 20 goals in five games. Against the US, Germany had one shot on goal.

And the US’ defense was finally given some breathing room in the final minutes of the game when the US put away the dagger. In the 84th minute, Lloyd gathered the ball in the box. She beat her defender and dribbled toward the endline. At the last second, she sent a ball across the frame of the goal, where Kelley O’Hara met the cross with a volley that gave the US a 2-0 — and an unsurpassable — lead.

Like the US players, head coach Jill Ellis also deserves credit for her willingness to change formations. Switching from the 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3, the US was suddenly creative and an offensive force. And you have to figure she sticks with the formation on Sunday, when the US has a chance to win the whole thing.

The good news for the US is that, for the first time all tournament, it looked like the best team in the world. And, now, the USWNT will only have to put together a similar performance in just one more game.

It’s really a relief — for the first time since the World Cup started, I won’t be writing about how the US women’s national team is expected to win its upcoming game and how, despite its struggles, it should have no issues advancing.

For the first time in the 2015 World Cup, the US is not the favorite in its upcoming match. Because when the US faces Germany on Tuesday, in the semifinals of the World Cup, it will be up against a foe that is playing at a higher level and it will be up against a roster that stacks up to the US’ loaded squad. The US will be the underdog, which, luckily for us, is about as American as it gets.

At stake? Only a spot in the World Cup final. And for whichever side that manages to win on Tuesday, it’ll be the favorite to bring home first place against either Japan or England on Sunday.

For the US, not only will it have to find a way to slow down a German side that has managed to score 20 goals in five games, but it also has a lineup dilemma to navigate. Should head coach Jill Ellis re-insert Megan Rapinoe, Lauren Holiday, and Abby Wambach back into the starting lineup? Or should Ellis stick with Kelley O’Hara, Morgan Brian, and Amy Rodriguez? Furthermore, should Ellis keep with the 4-4-2 that hasn’t hindered the US against inferior opponents? Or will Germany’s strength force Ellis to tinker with her formation and come out in, perhaps, a 4-2-3-1?

If it were up to me, I’d definitely leave Wambach off the field. Yes, this is probably her last World Cup run and, yes, she’s a US soccer legend, but now isn’t the time for Ellis to favor heroes of the past. Now isn’t the time to fall victim to an American sports issue that Jurgen Klinsmann — the USMNT coach — once pointed out, when he told The New York Times Magazine that American teams are so quick to reward aging athletes for their prior accomplishments.

“Kobe Bryant, for example — why does he get a two-year contract extension for $50 million?” Klinsmann said at the time. “Because of what he is going to do in the next two years for the Lakers? Of course not. Of course not. He gets it because of what he has done before. It makes no sense. Why do you pay for what has already happened?”

Don’t reward Wambach for what she’s accomplished in the past. Play the forwards who have been playing the best in this World Cup. Whether that’s Amy Rodriguez, Christen Press, or Sydney Leroux — all three are better options against a German team that struggled to contain France’s speed in their quarterfinal match.

As for the midfield, I’d re-insert Rapinoe — this one is an obvious and easy decision. The US is still a team that seems to have an issue with playing cohesive soccer. Rapinoe might be the USWNT’s most creative force, and she’s a threat to score anywhere around the box.

As for the center of the midfield, I’d leave in Brian instead of Holiday, who is one of the most skilled players on the team. Holiday hasn’t played up to expectations in the tournament so far and — though the sample size is tremendously small in games without her — the team played better with Brian in her spot.

Against China, Brian wasn’t only just a defensive presence in the midfield, but she was also the only midfielder to consistently display the kind of patience needed for a US team built around attacking stars. Center midfielder Carli Lloyd thrives in an attacking role, but the US also needs someone to hold the center of the pitch and slow down the pace of play. Brian is that player.

Of course, another option for the US would be to change formations entirely, which would allow it to play both Brian and Holiday. Thomas Floyd over at wrote about the possibility of switching to a 4-2-3-1, and it’s an idea that I fully endorse. The US’ strength lies in its midfielders, and Ellis should play all of her best midfielders, while allowing Alex Morgan to roam up top.

It seems unlikely that Ellis would pull the trigger, but it might be the best option for the US at this point.

Luckily for Ellis, she probably won’t need to adjust her defense, which has gone 423 minutes without surrendering a goal. Despite the USWNT’s defense’s dominance to this point, Germany will get its chances. As previously mentioned, Germany has scored 20 goals (the most in the tournament) and has launched 134 shots (also the most in the tournament). Celia Sasic has accounted for six of those goals while Anja Mittag has put away five. Germany figures to test the US like the US hasn’t been tested yet.

Which means this might be the first time in a while that we get the pleasure of watching goalkeeper Hope Solo in action. When asked to make saves, there’s no one better than Solo, but she isn’t asked to do this much. Make no mistake about it, though — Solo should be up to the task of keeping the US in the game, if it comes to that. She’s proved that in years prior, and she proved that in the first half of the US’ first group stage game against Australia.

Like the US, Germany is also facing some personal hurdles, mainly in the form of a hyperextended left ankle suffered by midfielder Dzsenifer Marozsan. It’s currently unknown if Marozsan will be able to see the field against the US.

Regardless, on Tuesday night, the US is facing its biggest test of the year. In addition to its offensive juggernaut, Germany also has its own version of Solo in goal. Goalkeeper Nadine Angerer, who was FIFA’s 2013 player of the year, will make it difficult on the US attack.

Throughout the USWNT’s run, I’ve often written that the US has struggled, but I’ve almost always included the caveat that it still has time to rejuvenate its attack before it finally faces a team that has the ability to end its run. Well, the time has come. The US, starting with head coach Jill Ellis, needs to perform up the standard that we’ve expected from day one. Because if it doesn’t, the US will be playing in the third place game on Saturday — the Fourth of July. And there’d be nothing more un-American than that.

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