OTTAWA, Ontario – The Americans have their swagger back.
Thanks to an R-rated halftime pep talk from Abby Wambach and a lineup change that unleashed the big gamer in Carli Lloyd, the U.S. women finally caught a wave of momentum. One they’re hoping to ride all the way to the World Cup title.
“This game was huge for our confidence,” said Lloyd, whose goal in the 51st minute sent the U.S. on to the semifinals. “It was what we needed, and I think we’re going to be flying next game.”
Could the Americans have done better than a 1-0 victory against a young China team that is, to put it mildly, offensively-challenged? Absolutely. Will one goal cut it against the high-powered Germans, who the Americans play in Tuesday night’s semifinals? No way. The U.S. needs to continue being aggressive and do a better job – much better job – of finishing the chances it gets.
But Friday night’s quarterfinal was the most life the Americans have shown since they crossed the border. It certainly was the most entertaining game they’ve played in the World Cup.
It’s the kind of game that boosts a team’s morale and makes it feel invincible, even if it’s still not playing its best.
“There was something about the feeling on the field. It just felt good,” Kelley O’Hara said. “I feel like we have momentum going into the semifinal now.”
Reaching the semifinals always seemed to be a foregone conclusion for the Americans. While Germany and France were beating each other up in the other quarterfinal on their side of the bracket, the Americans got China, a team that was in the knockout rounds for the first time since 1999.
You know, that game the U.S. won on penalty kicks, giving the Americans their second World Cup title and favored team status for eternity.
But getting to the semifinals was one thing for the current group of Americans. Looking as if they had any chance of advancing from there was another.
The Americans were lackluster, at best, in their first four games, their potent offense stifled by a defensive-minded game plan that buried Lloyd near the backline and sucked every bit of creativity out of the midfield. Former players, analysts, fans, people who only discovered soccer last week – everyone but Ellis recognized that it wasn’t working.
Even Lloyd said the Americans needed to do something different, though she did it far more diplomatically than the rest of the naysayers.
“In order for us to win this thing, in order for us to show what we’ve got, show the world what we’ve got, we’ve got to take some risks at some point,” Lloyd said Wednesday. “I know for me, I love to attack. I had a decent shot last game. I need more of that. I need to get the ball, I need to run at players, I need to create stuff.”
More like she needed the chance to do that.
With Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday both suspended for the game after picking up their second yellow cards of the tournament, Ellis tore up the old playbook. She subbed Wambach for the speedier Amy Rodriguez, and put O’Hara on the right side of the midfield. She parked Morgan Brian back in Lloyd’s old spot.
The moves allowed Lloyd to reclaim her natural position of attacking midfielder, and the difference was noticeable immediately. The U.S. was quicker and more energetic, and it had more chances in the first half than it did in the first four games combined.
“There was something about yesterday’s training that was different,” Wambach said. “I think that with Pinoe and (Holiday) sitting on their suspensions, it allowed some players time to play. It gave them that hope.
“And it gave some spark and some life to this team.”
And yet, at halftime, the score was still 0-0. Which is where Wambach comes in.
As the team waited to take the field, cameras caught Wambach telling her teammates in, umm, colorful language, to “get a goal in the first 10 minutes and we win this … game.”
You don’t need to be a wordsmith to fill in the blank.
“If you know anything about me, you know I’m very passionate, on the field and off,” Wambach said. “In fact, one of my teammates had to move away from me during the game because I was obnoxious on the bench because I’m screaming and yelling for my teammates.”
Clearly, they listen. Just five minutes into the second half, Julie Johnston floated a beautiful cross into the penalty box that Lloyd whipped past China’s diving goalkeeper. There was no mistaking Lloyd’s elation as she released three weeks of frustration with a celebratory karate kick to the corner flag.
It was the first goal in the tournament from the run of play for Lloyd, who scored the game-winners in both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.
“It’s the first game all tournament we really put our opponent on their back heels,” Lloyd said. “Collectively, from everybody, it was fantastic.”
PHOTOS: USA vs. China
United States midfielder Carli Lloyd (10) celebrates her goal with teammates against China during the second half.