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Favored USWNT set to face confident, relaxed England in World Cup semifinal

England has belief and swagger behind coach Phil Neville, who said anything less than a gold medal is a failure.

United States' Julie Ertz leaps to head the ball during the Women's World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between France and the United States at Parc des Princes in Paris, France, Friday, June 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

LYON, France — This match has everything: high stakes, confident teams, drama and banter. 

England is the underdog — as all teams are going up against the reigning world champion — but has belief and swagger behind coach Phil Neville, who said anything less than a gold medal is a failure.

The United States is the seemingly unbeatable powerhouse with a history of success never before seen in the women’s game. A World Cup title is an expectation, and the Americans project that confidence daily.

The two will meet on the pitch for a World Cup semifinal at 3 p.m. ET Tuesday at Stade de Lyon. Fox will broadcast the match. The winner will advance to the July 7 final to play either Sweden or Netherlands.

“We know obviously there’s a great history with our program, but we are a team that knows we have to earn every second and every result,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. 

A narrative that the United States is arrogant keeps popping up during press conferences and interviews. Ellis and players are asked daily about their confidence, if it’s too much and whether it’s “because you’re American.” 

But that very quality is admired by Neville, who said he sees it in his players as well.

“Elite sport is about winning,” Neville said. “Nobody cares who gets the silver or bronze. It’s the gold medal that everybody wants. And I’ve got to say, America have got that ruthless streak of wanting to win. You saw the last five minutes of the game against France. The game management was fantastic. They took the ball into the corner, they knew what it took to win and they celebrated like winners. And that’s what I admire and that’s what my team have got now.”

He said his team got that partly from winning the SheBelieves Cup in early March. The four-team international friendly tournament also featured the United States, Japan and Brazil. England played the U.S. to a 2-2 draw and beat the other teams, while the USWNT beat Brazil and tied Japan for second place.

England finished third in the 2015 World Cup, losing to Japan in the semifinals. The United States won it all.

Neville wasn’t in charge then. A former Manchester United, Everton and men’s national team player, Neville took over as the Lionesses’ manager at the beginning of 2018. Ellis said she’s impressed with how England has progressed so far under him, that “you can see they’re playing hard and bought in to what he wants them to do.”

And England will stick to the gameplan that got them this far. According to Neville, that’s non-negotiable. No team will scare him into changing his style of play.

“They’re the best team in the world, without a shadow of a doubt,” Neville said of the United States. “Their record is phenomenal. The coach’s record is phenomenal. But I’m not worried about anything. Never do.

“You get these moments in life and you think, ‘Grasp it with both hands, both feet, all your body,’ and that’s what we’ve been saying to the players. Don’t get to a semifinal now and have any regrets. Don’t get to a semifinal and think afterward, ‘Shoulda, coulda, woulda.’ Get to a semifinal and get out there and play your best. And I want to see smiles, and I want to see freedom, and I want to see us play the way we can.

“I heard one of the players at breakfast this morning say, ‘It doesn’t feel like we’re at a World cup semifinal,’ and that’s because they’re so relaxed and that’s how I want them to play.”

England’s star is right back Lucy Bronze, someone Neville called the best player in the world and unique in everything she does, from one-v-one defending to her athleticism, fearlessness and ability to step up in big games. She’ll also try to contain Megan Rapinoe, who has carried the U.S. by scoring all four combined goals in the last two victories.

“Megan Rapinoe has put the team on her back from Spain to France, and it’s going to take a couple individuals like that each game to really step up and help this team,” said Alex Morgan, who is tied with Rapinoe and England’s Ellen White in the World Cup Golden Boot race. One of them could pull ahead during this match. 

Add in the the drama of “hotel-gate,” when Neville condemned the U.S. staff for checking out his team’s hotel, where the winner of Tuesday’s match will stay for the final.

And the banter, such as when a reporter said the Americans’ took no longer than 12 minutes to score in any World Cup match so far, to which Neville responded: “Well, we’ve got the fastest goal in the tournament, so I think they’ll be worried about our power play as well.”

“We have players who love these big games, love these big moments,” England captain Steph Houghton said. “And they don’t come much bigger than a semifinal against the world champions.”

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