Alex Morgan scored what proved to be the winner but hailed goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher after her late penalty save from Steph Houghton allowed the United States to claim a dramatic 2-1 victory over England in their women’s World Cup semi-final on Tuesday.
On her 30th birthday, USA co-captain Morgan headed home her sixth goal of the World Cup just after the half-hour mark in this last-four showdown to put her team back in front after Ellen White had cancelled out Christen Press’s early opener.
But after an open first 45 minutes, the second half was dominated by more VAR controversy, with England having another White goal disallowed for the tightest of offside calls following a review by the Brazilian referee.
Phil Neville’s team later benefited from Edina Alves Batista’s decision to award them a spot-kick when Becky Sauerbrunn made the slightest of contact with White in the box, yet Houghton’s 84th-minute kick was stopped by Naeher diving low to her right.
England finished with 10 players after Millie Bright was sent off for a second yellow card late on, and the USA held out to reach the final, despite being without the injured Megan Rapinoe.
“Alyssa Naeher, she should be the player of the match today. She saved our butts today,” said Morgan.
They will now go on to face Sweden or the Netherlands in Sunday’s final, as they aim to win the trophy for the fourth time in eight editions. It is their third straight final, and they will hope to have Rapinoe back in time.
“Megan’s got a slight strain to her hamstring so wasn’t available today,” said US coach Jill Ellis.
“I feel we have a really good deep bench, so I called upon other players and I think they did a fantastic job.”
It is another bitterly disappointing way for England to lose, as they go out of a third consecutive major tournament in the semi-finals. Their players cut dejected figures on the pitch at full-time.
“Football can be cruel. We have had a fantastic ride. When we got the penalty I turned to my bench and said ‘we were going to win it,’ but it wasn’t to be,” Neville told the BBC.
Perhaps Nikita Parris should have been given the chance to make up for her penalty misses against Argentina and Norway earlier in the competition? Ellis’s side will not be too worried about that, as fortune favoured them.
That England could not take advantage of Rapinoe’s absence said much about the strength in depth available to the USA, with the excellent Press taking her place.
Unperturbed by the change, the Americans came flying out of the blocks like they have in every match at this tournament.
They had scored no later than the 12th minute in all of their previous five matches, and here they required only 10 minutes to take the lead, Tobin Heath finding Kelley O’Hara whose cross from the right was headed in by Press at the far post.
Replacing the injured Karen Bardsley in goal, Carly Telford could do nothing to stop it, and England were stunned.
However, they were back level on 19 minutes as Beth Mead’s pinpoint delivery picked out White and she steered the ball in off the frame of the goal for her sixth of the tournament.
Yet it was the holders who went back in front just after the half-hour, Morgan stealing in front of Demi Stokes and heading home Lindsey Horan’s delivery. She celebrated by miming sipping on a cup of tea.
As the USA tried to soak up pressure in the second half, England thought they were level in the 68th minute when Jill Scott’s flick picked out White to score, but VAR denied them the equalizer and her a seventh goal of the tournament.
Yet even when VAR came to their rescue, England failed to capitalize, and Bright’s late sending-off for a second yellow card as she scythed down Morgan summed up their frustration. They must now try to lift themselves for the third-place play-off on Saturday.