MONTREAL (AP) — It used to be that the U.S. women’s national team was known more for its fierce attack. For the Women’s World Cup in Canada, the Americans are finding success with a locked-down defense.
Goalkeeper Hope Solo, beleaguered at the start by new revelations in her domestic violence assault case last year, has been nearly perfect with five straight shutouts.
Her latest came on Tuesday night when the United States defeated top-ranked Germany in the semifinals before a raucous pro-American crowd at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.
Normally so focused to the point of almost appearing stern, the television cameras caught Solo break into a smile late in the match when it appeared the United States had guaranteed its place in the final.
Now it’s on to the title match set for Sunday at BC Place in Vancouver. The United States will face Japan in a rematch of the 2011 final. Japan beat England 2-1 Wednesday night in Edmonton.
The U.S. is 24-1-6 against Japan. Four years ago in Germany, Japan defeated the United States on penalty kicks after a 2-all draw for its first World Cup title.
“In order to be the best team in the world at the World Cup, you have to beat the best teams,” Abby Wambach said. “We just beat the No. 1 team in the world in Germany and now we face Japan, another team that we have so much respect for. They have an amazing team and they’re the reigning World Cup champions, so I think it’s going to be a fantastic final. Everyone will have to bring their “A’’ game, and whoever finishes their chances the most will come out on top. Hopefully it will be us.”
The U.S. women have won two World Cups, but the last championship came in 1999. This will be the team’s fourth appearance in the final.
The team’s success so far in the tournament has been boosted not only by Solo’s spectacular work in goal but by a stellar backline of Meghan Klingenberg, Becky Sauerbrunn, Julie Johnston and Ali Krieger.
The United States has gone 513 minutes without conceding a goal. Only Australia, in the first half of the group-stage opener, has managed to score against the Americans.
“It’s a spectacular stat, to be honest with you. I always tell the team, we just need one more than our opponent if we keep a clean sheet,” coach Jill Ellis said. “And it’s not just our goalkeeper and our back four. I think this team has embraced the accountability and responsibility of defending on every line. It’s something we ask of them, but they deliver. They understand that it’s important.”
Klingenberg pulled off a big save in the highly anticipated group stage match against No. 5 Sweden, led by former U.S. coach Pia Sundhage. The diminutive defender leaped to head away a shot by Caroline Seger. The ball hit the crossbar and caromed away from the goal. Goal-line technology was used to confirm the ball never crossed the line.
The save in the 77th minute preserved the 0-0 draw and the United States went on to finish atop the group stage heading into the knockout round.
Solo, who won the Golden Glove award for the 2011 World Cup, leads all goalkeepers in the tournament with 12 saves to one goal against.
She has not spoken to reporters covering the event since brief remarks following the opener against the Matildas. Just before the World Cup got under way, ESPN revealed new details about Solo’s arrest last June for domestic violence assault. The misdemeanor charges stemmed from an altercation with her half-sister and 17-year-old nephew at a party in Washington.
The charges against Solo were dropped earlier this year.
Solo has talked about her play via videos released by U.S. Soccer.
“I’ve said it all along, that you have a young player like Julie Johnston, who was ready for the big stage. She was ready for this type of tournament, she’s come a long way in the last year. You put her besides somebody as calm as Becky Sauerbrunn and it makes the perfect mix,” Solo said. “Obviously our wingers are incredible.”
Johnston, who made just three appearances with the national team last year before emerging as a starter in matches leading up to the World Cup, has undeniably been a success story in the tournament. But she admittedly made a mistake in Tuesday’s match when she fouled Germany’s Alexandra Popp inside the box in the 59th minute. It was a foul that could have garnered her a red card.
But Celia Sasic, the World Cup’s top scorer with six goals, missed the penalty kick wide. The United States went on to score twice, on Carli Lloyd’s penalty kick and Kelley O’Hara’s late goal.
Solo and Sauerbrunn both pulled a teary-eyed Johnston aside after the foul to tell her they had her back.
“I think it’s important for me to learn from it,” Johnston said. “I don’t want that to ever happen again. It was on my shoulders. That’s my fault and I put that all on me,” Johnston said. “We have one more game and I need to focus on and do what I need to do for the team.”
Clearly, that was a hint of the accountability Ellis referred to.
“We’ve got gritty players in the back, we’ve got sophisticated players in the back,” Ellis said. “And they just do a great job of reading the game and shutting down the opponent.”