The 2019 Women’s World Cup: The Semis – The USA, By A Hair’s Breadth
Whisper it quietly, but I think we might even prefer it this way. Gallant failure punctuated by good luck that could be perceived as bad luck, and bad luck which could be perceived as good luck. England offered a potent and heady cocktail of self-sabotage on a night when inches mattered, and when opportunities couldn’t afford to be spurned. It seems to be the English way – in a sporting sense, at least. The United States of America, meanwhile, march on to the final to play the Netherlands or Sweden with one hand of the team’s imagination already gripping the trophy.
But they were given a game in Lyon this evening, of that there can be little doubt. Indeed England can take considerable pride from the fact that they gave the USA a considerably sterner test than France did in the previous round. In a sense, England’s defeat – or at least their failure to take the match to extra-time – was of their own making. The offside rule may be stupid, but the decision to overrule Ellen White’s goal was, by the current interpretation of the current rules and with the video assistant, correct. The penalty kick didn’t look very much like a penalty kick to me, and the subsequent miss was England’s issue. The sending off of Millie Bright was for a reckless tackle made on a yellow card, and it completed a perfect hat-trick of misfortune. Disallowed goal, missed penalty, sending off. Just add an own goal for a full house.
That isn’t to say that the USA weren’t lucky, though. They were lucky that Ellen White didn’t time her run a tenth of a second earlier. They were lucky that the penalty kick, even though the kick itself shouldn’t have been given, was so poor. They were lucky that they got to play out seven minutes of injury-time against ten women because one of the opposing team had a rush of blood to the head. They controlled the game early on, waiting until only the tenth minute for their inevitable early goal, a far post header from Christen Press, who was brought in for Megan Rapinoe by USA coach Jill Ellis to considerable consternation an hour before kick-off. At the time of writing, there’s been no confirmation of the reason for this. The rumour mill is, of course, spinning into overdrive with the news that a press conference will be called to confirm what, if anything, has happened.
England had been dithering, but the goal seemed to shake them to life and seven minutes later they were level, when Beth Mead’s cross from the left was touched in by Ellen White, her sixth goal of the tournament. The USA team was quite clearly and evidently rattled, but recovered their composure enough for Lindsey Horan to deliver a perfectly weighted cross for Alex Morgan to head them back into the lead after half an hour. Even shortly after this, England almost regained parity when Keira Walsh’s outswinging shot was spectacularly palmed away by Alyssa Naeher, but by half-time the USA seemed to be back on the front foot. Their mission to press so high as to both mentally and physically wear their opponents out seemed to be working. It might be argued that it did, in the end.
Ellen White was offside. The current interpretation of the current wording of the laws relating to both offside and handball may well be a farce, especially when combined with the VAR, but that’s where we are and there’s little else to be said about it than that. Had she started her run a fraction of a second later she’d have been onside. Were there any give in the rules, she’d have been onside. If the offside rule favoured attacking players, she’d have been onside. Those ifs and buts, however, are worth little when the camera grasses you up and the referee’s whistle blows. All that matters is where the coloured lines of the television companies are superimposed onto the pitch. This is, almost certainly whether we like it or not, what we’ve become.
With eleven minutes left to play, England were handed a potential lifeline when an innocuous-looking challenge from Becky Sauberbrunn on Ellen White resulted in a three-minute delay while the cameras were checked before the whistle blew and perhaps the softest penalty that many of us will ever have seen was awarded. There was, by the look of it, approximately the tiniest amount of contact between the two players, but no more. With Nikita Parris having missed her last two successive penalty kicks already in these finals, Steph Houghton stepped up in her place and… side-footed a tame low shot which Naeher saved with a degree of comfort. Four minutes later, Millie Bright’s rash challenge over the ball on Alex Morgan brought a deserved second yellow card. Down to ten players and playing against supreme athletes with decent game management skills, even seven minutes of stoppage-time wasn’t long enough for England to fashion one more chance. They’d already had it, and failed to take it.
England, then, move on to a third and fourth place play-off against either the Netherlands or Sweden on Saturday, while the USA move on to Sunday’s final. England have ultimately achieved as many expected them to prior to the start of the tournament. They can, however, take considerable pride – no particular pun intended – from their performance in Lyon this evening. They pushed the holders considerably harder than anybody else has in this tournament has, including the host nation (and second favourites to win it) and have secured qualification for the 2020 Olympic Games under whatever form it’s decided the Great Britain team takes. But they have to ultimately front up to the fact that they had the chances to haul their way back into this match and couldn’t take them. None of this, however, should detract from their sense of achievement at having reached across a vast gulf in resources and pushed this of all teams. So near, yet so far. It’s the English way.