LYON, France — Alex Morgan had the ball at her feet, Carli Lloyd at her side, and a great green expanse opening up in front of her eyes. England had long since thrown any and all caution to the wind; its players were marooned upfield. Now only one white shirt stood between Morgan, that apex predator, and Carly Telford’s goal.
Morgan flicked the ball ahead of her, and sprinted into open space. Deep into one of the almost endless periods of injury time that the introduction of video-assisted refereeing has created, she bristled with energy, speeding over the ground toward her target. She was almost there when Steph Houghton, England’s captain, threw herself into a tackle. Morgan came up just short. This time, she could not quite reach the corner flag.
An abundance of qualities have carried the United States past Spain, France and now England and into yet another World Cup final, where either the Netherlands or Sweden awaits on Sunday. The finishing of Morgan — scorer of what proved the decisive goal here on Tuesday — is one of them.
So, too, in no particular order: the dynamism of Crystal Dunn; the mesmerizing dribbling of Tobin Heath; the ingenuity of Megan Rapinoe and the explosiveness of her replacement, Christen Press; the strength of Julie Ertz; Lindsey Horan’s ability, in Morgan’s words, to “play any pass”; and the joyful, inventive brilliance of Rose Lavelle, by some distance the best player on the field in this semifinal.
More important still than the individual characteristics, though, are the collective ones. This United States team has a self-confidence that has set as concrete; it is not so much that it seems to go into every game expecting to win, but that it appears not to have heard about the possibility of defeat. It is keenly aware of the legacy it has inherited, the standards it is expected to keep, the glories that have gone before, and it does not shy from them. Instead, it embraces the challenge, the chance to prove itself worthy of the torch inherited from Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain and Abby Wambach and the rest.
That reputation, that lofty ambition, is not allowed to bleed into complacency when faced with mere mortals. As Lavelle said, she and her teammates are perfectly prepared to “fight until the end.” Despite their evident superiority, she said, they refuse to “take any opponent for granted.”
Even for a team as seasoned as the United States, this was a test; even with a 2-1 lead at halftime — and, later, once Millie Bright had been sent off for England — even with an extra player on the field, this was an occasion to strain the nerves. Not simply because it was a World Cup semifinal, where history and ignominy await with open jaws, but because of the type of semifinal it became.
In that second half, particularly, it would have been possible for even the coolest of heads to be swept away, as the air fizzed and the noise crackled and, for a few minutes, it became clear that it was not possible to believe what you had seen, where everything could change in a second, thanks to decisions made either down there on the field or far off, in the V.A.R. booth. England had an equalizer, and then, no, it didn’t. England missed a glorious, glaring chance, and the United States could catch its breath, and then it couldn’t, because England had been awarded a penalty.
And then Houghton shot low and straight and soft, and Alyssa Naeher gathered the ball up, clinging onto it, cradling it close to her stomach. The United States had survived, and England had stumbled. In the stands, some screamed and others groaned; some cheered and others roared. Most of the time, the noise is the best way to interpret how a game is going: the glee of one set of fans, the gloom of the other. This was formless, chaotic, impossible to place. On the field, the players had to make sense of it all, to find a pattern, to find their feet.
Perhaps, in time, the quality that allowed the United States to navigate those few minutes — and the agonizing 20 or so more that followed — will come to be identified as its defining trait. “It was a nail-biter,” Lavelle said of those minutes when everyone’s fate was busy being decided somewhere else. “It was a long wait. But I think it’s a time to regroup, to get together, to be ready for whatever’s next.”
None of it threw Jill Ellis’s team. There is too much experience, too much nous, in the United States ranks for that to happen. Instead, it did all it could to tamp down the frenzy. The team that had started this tournament by running up the score against Thailand, adamant that it should, at all times, seek to attack, to go for the jugular, to never stop, started to run for the corners. Heath did it. Morgan did it. They dallied at free kicks. They looked for contact, and when they got it, they stayed down. They waited until they had the ball just right before taking throw-ins. Naeher held on to the ball for as long as she could without attracting sanction from the referee, Ellen White making her feelings on the matter plain as she did so. They drew the sting. They ran the clock.
In doing so, of course, they tried England’s patience. “I don’t want to say too much,” White said afterward, her devastation still plain. “I could say a lot. Some of it may be a bit unsporting, but that is game management. That is how they win games.”
She is right, too: that cynical side is just as much a part of the United States arsenal as Morgan’s finishing or Horan’s vision or Heath’s technique. It is what makes them such a fearsome opponent, one capable not only of pummeling an opponent, but of asphyxiating them, too, draining them not only of time but of hope.
It speaks, deep down, to this team’s true identity. There is little highbrow talk of philosophy from Ellis and her players. They do not see themselves as the standard-bearers for some idea of how the game should be played or what it should look like. It would be wrong to say there is no aesthetic quality to what they do; more that they accept that aesthetics are subjective — what looks beautiful to some may be dull to others — and that their concern is, primarily, with the objective.
This is a team built to win: whenever, wherever and however that might be. Morgan running for the corner was no less a manifestation of a ruthless streak than giddily cranking up the score against Thailand was almost a month ago. She was doing what was necessary to win. That is all that matters. That, to this incarnation of women’s soccer’s greatest dynasty, is all that there is.
Rory Smith is the chief soccer correspondent, based in Manchester, England. He covers all aspects of European soccer and has reported from three World Cups, the Olympics, and numerous European tournaments. @RorySmith
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