LYON, France — The United States is one game away from back-to-back World Cup titles.
Alex Morgan scored a go-ahead goal on her birthday and Alyssa Naeher saved a late penalty kick to give the U.S. women’s national team a 2-1 victory over England during its World Cup semifinal Tuesday at Stade de Lyon.
The U.S. will now stay in Lyon to play for the title Sunday against either Sweden or Netherlands, who play each other Wednesday. England will compete for third place Saturday in Nice.
“I think this is the hardest route to a final that a team’s probably ever taken, but they find a way,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. “And I attribute that to just the mental strength, the culture, the environment, the history, the tradition — and also I think they’re vetted in pressure. You saw that tonight. It’s a resolve. It’s fantastic.”
With the score 2-1 in the 83rd minute, the announced crowd of 53,512 fell silent when England earned a penalty kick. The call came after defender Demi Stokes crossed the ball to Ellen White directly in front of the goal, but White tripped and fell and Naeher chased the ball to the end line.
The Video Assistant Referee reviewed the play and determined U.S. defender Becky Sauerbrunn fouled White before the English star hit the ground. Lionesses captain Steph Houghton stepped up to take the penalty kick, a grounder to the left side of the net. Naeher anticipated the shot and dove in front of it to preserve the Americans’ lead.
“Just tried to get a good read on it, tried to take a few deep breaths, get focused on the ball, focused on the play and let instincts take over from there,” Naeher said. “It’s a feeling. You just try to be in the moment, be in the game and just hope it goes your way.”
Naeher, doubted by many entering her first big tournament as the starting U.S. goalkeeper, received a standing ovation from fans and hugs from teammates.
“When we got that penalty, I turned to my bench and said, ‘We’ll win this,’ but it wasn’t to be,” England coach Phil Neville said. “Good luck to America. I think they showed up tonight. They know what it takes to win.”
Another big VAR decision in the 69th minute helped the United States. White charged into the box to receive a pass, paused for half a second to confound Naeher and then tapped the ball into the left side of the net. Before play resumed, however, the referee signaled for video review, and the words “NO GOAL | OFFSIDE” flashed on the big screen moments later.
The entire second half was chippy and physical, but Millie Bright cost England when she drove her studs into Morgan’s shin in the 86th minute. The referee handed out Bright’s second yellow card of the night, ejecting her from the match and leaving England to fend off the reigning champs through seven minutes of added time with 10 players.
“I had no idea how much time was left, but it felt like forever. We just stayed in it,” U.S. defender Julie Ertz said.
U.S. coach Jill Ellis shocked many when she chose to bench Megan Rapinoe for the semifinal, revealing after the game it was to rest a slight hamstring strain. Rapinoe said she should be ready to go for the final.
England had to change its lineup as well because starting keeper Karen Bardsley injured her hamstring. Carly Telford started in her place. Christen Press started for Rapinoe on the left wing and nailed a header into the upper corner of England’s net for a 1-0 lead in the first 10 minutes.
White became the top scorer in the tournament with her sixth goal, a 19th-minute equalizer. She didn’t enjoy that title for long, though. Alex Morgan scored her sixth World Cup goal in the 31st minute when she got her head on a ball passed forward by Lindsey Horan and put the U.S. back on top.
After the goal, U.S. fans in the stadium sang “Happy Birthday” to the star, who turned 30 Tuesday and said it was her most emotional and exciting birthday yet.
“It obviously felt good to get on the scoresheet and to get the game-winning goal. We had the goals early and then we had to hold them off,” Morgan said. “We’ve put so much into this journey together and now we have to close it out.”