DECINES-CHARPIEU, France — In reaching the semifinals of the Women’s World Cup, the defending champion United States conjured chameleon-like versatility at each stage. The Americans trounced Thailand with an eruption of goals, outmuscled Spain in a slugfest and erected a defensive fortress to repel an assault by France.
But to get past England — their final hurdle in earning a spot in Sunday’s championship match — the top-ranked U.S. women had to tap every tactic in their repertoire, summon the best from lightly tested players and, yet again, draw on the stone-cold conviction that there was no situation they couldn’t overcome.
And two days before Independence Day, the U.S. team swept into the final with a 2-1 victory over third-ranked England with style, depth, grit, an outstanding save by goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and, most notably, without an ailing Megan Rapinoe, who had scored its previous four goals.
Forward Alex Morgan, who scored the game-winner on a perfectly timed header, celebrated by sipping an imaginary cup of tea, complete with raised pinkie finger.
Whether it was a wry rebuttal to critics who faulted the Americans’ exuberance in their romp against Thailand or simply another example of American arrogance depended primarily on which side of the Atlantic one lives.
“We play a hard game, and that’s a confident game — not an arrogant game,” said Morgan, dismissing the narrative that had dominated England’s press in the run-up to Tuesday’s match that the three-time World Cup champion Americans were insufferably full of themselves.
Tuesday’s victory was far from certain until the final whistle.
The Americans came out in attack mode and struck first, just 10 minutes in, with Kelley O’Hara sending an arcing ball to Christen Press, who timed her leap perfectly. With a pop of her head, she sent the ball into the top corner of the net beyond the goalkeeper’s outreached hand.
The lead was short-lived.
England equalized at 1-1 in the 19th minute, and Morgan’s header reclaimed the lead in the 31st.
Then came a foul in the 84th minute that gave the Lionesses a penalty kick. England tapped captain Steph Houghton to take it, and the Americans could do nothing but look on, knowing well that the chances of a goalkeeper saving the shot was 20 percent, at best.
“Credit to our team,” said defender Becky Sauerbrunn, who had risked the penalty, she explained afterward, to save what seemed a certain goal. “It wasn’t this, ‘Oh, no!’ moment. It was: ‘All right! This is soccer. Let’s go with it, and move on.’ ”
On the sideline, Rapinoe was in knots, kept out of the game by what she described as a mild hamstring injury.
It seemed forever, the moment between Houghton stepping up to the ball and actually kicking it.
Naeher, who had never started a World Cup or Olympic game before this tournament, locked on the ball. What portion of her next explosive move was instinct, and what part was expert reading of an opponent’s intent, Naeher couldn’t say afterward.
But the moment Houghton blasted it low and to the left side of the goal, Naeher pounced to her right and flopped on the ball, saving the Americans’ lead.
From there, minutes seemed like hours, and extra time was added.
When the final whistle sounded, the entire bench emptied and stampeded to Naeher. Sauerbrunn, who lines up in front of her, got there first and told her, “I love you!”
In many corners, Naeher had been seen as the one unproven commodity on the U.S. team, if not its biggest vulnerability.
Tuesday night, she won the match, yet never would speak above a whisper about her process or her contribution.
“I don’t really remember it, to be honest,” said Naeher, 31. “I just try to stay focused. Take a few deep breaths. I just try to get a good jump on it, try to get a good read, hope to make a save, and was able to do that.”
Sauerbrunn explained later: “I don’t think she needed to have a big moment for us to know how good she was. ... Now the world knows how good she is.”
It was a bitter disappointment for England, whose coach, Phil Neville, a former Manchester United and national team defender, had sought to instill what he called the “ruthlessness” of the U.S. women after taking over England’s national team 18 months ago.
It was, in a sense, the highest form of flattery, to push his players to compete with an attacking style and convince them that not only could they win their first Women’s World Cup, but they should win.
Winning is the only metric that matters in sports, Neville told them. This was their new standard and the new expectation, no matter what opponent the Lionesses faced.
The BBC expected 10 million to tune in to the match, which would make it the year’s most watched event.
Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, tweeted a video of support and admiration for the team, with the hashtag “roarforthelionesses,” saying: “Millions of people are watching. Good luck, girls. You have shown great qualities throughout the tournament. Come on, England.”
And England forward Nikita Parris had declared in the run-up that “nobody fears America,” a phrase that became a screaming headline in the Daily Mail.
Parris said, noting England’s recent good results: “We beat them, 1-0, [in the recent past]. Why shouldn’t we think we can beat them? Why do we have to come to this tournament semifinal and think, ‘Oh, it’s America?’ Nobody fears America. I don’t fear America, and I don’t think my teammates do.”
And it left Lioness Jade Moore looking for deeper meaning in their effort.
“We’ve come here, and we want to inspire a generation again,” Moore said, her face red with tears. “We want to snowball the effect of women’s football. We want kids to grow up and want to aspire to be Lionesses, and I think we did that. The performance was good. The result wasn’t.”