Path to Vancouver: USA's 10 key plays in road to Women's World Cup final
The U.S. women's national team has made the Women's World Cup final for a fourth time, looking to win a record third title but its first since 1999. The road hasn't always been easy, though.
As manager Jill Ellis worked through her squad to find the right combination, the USA struggled at times to leave an impression as a surefire title contender despite managing to secure victories in all but one of its matches. After a 2-0 win over Germany, the Americans have their mojo back and enter Sunday's final against Japan–a rematch of the 2011 Women's World Cup final and 2012 Olympic gold medal game–with loads of momentum.
Along the way, it's taken some individual moments of brilliance and a 513-minute (and counting) shutout streak from its defense to return to the cusp of women's soccer's pinnacle.
These 10 moments played vital roles in helping the Americans complete their journey to BC Place:
Solo's early saves
Despite being a finalist for the Golden Glove as the World Cup's best goalkeeper, Hope Solo hasn't been called on to do much in the last five games. In the opener against Australia, though, she was at her very best, especially in the opening minutes.
With the Matildas threatening and pulling apart the USA's defense (which since has been a record-setting unit) before the Americans could get on the board, Solo made a pair of highlight-reel saves. Her diving stop to tip Emily van Egmond's blast off the crossbar and then subsequent sliding save on Samantha Kerr reinforced the notion that her off-field controversy was not clouding her focus, and it allowed the USA to get a foothold in the game before things got out of hand.
Rapinoe's opening spark
While Solo played her part in goal, Megan Rapinoe stood out as the USA's prime attacking threat. Her opening goal had a bit of good fortune, as it took a wicked deflection, but her role in creating Christen Press's eventual game-winner and then her 1-on-1 ability to ice the 3-1 win over Australia set the tone for her tournament.
The shortest player on the U.S. women's national team stood tallest when it needed her most.
The 5-foot-2 Meghan Klingenberg preserved a 0-0 draw against Sweden in the Americans' second group game by leaping to clear a shot, one that had Solo beaten, off the line and the underside of the crossbar. That point mattered in a big way, as it kept the USA on course for first place in the group (and given the path the USA could have faced in the knockout stage had it not finished atop the group table, that's a big deal).
In an otherwise forgettable game, Klingenberg's big play was one of the plays of the tournament for the USA.
Johnston's recovery tackle
Julie Johnston has used this tournament to prop herself up on the global stage, and the Golden Ball finalist came up against Nigeria with one of her finest moments. With Asisat Oshoala seemingly in 1-v-1 on an onrushing Solo, Johnston recovered, used her speed and then impeccable technique to slide and deflect Oshoala's shot just enough to keep her from getting anything on frame, while keeping the group finale at 0-0.
At the time, the USA still needed a win to ensure it finished first in the group. In large part to Johnston, it did just that.
Abby Wambach has not had as impactful of a World Cup as she has become accustomed to, but she does have one game-winner to her name in 2015. Amid comments about the turf that created a stir and had some viewing her as using the surface as a scapegoat for a lackluster USA attack, Wambach's flying volley of a Rapinoe corner kick secured the 1-0 victory over Nigeria and first place in the group.
Morgan, Lloyd step up after Wambach misses
In the round of 16, the USA had its hands full with upstart Colombia and its backup goalkeeper Catalina Perez.
That all changed when she was sent off for fouling Alex Morgan in the Colombia box, but Wambach failed to convert the ensuing penalty kick, keeping the knockout clash level at 0-0.
Morgan took advantage of the backup to the backup, sneaking in a tight-angled shot to put the USA ahead 1-0 for her only goal of the tournament thus far.
Then, after Rapinoe drew another penalty later in the match, it was Carli Lloyd who stepped up and began what has been a determined run to the Golden Ball shortlist. Lloyd stepped to the spot and scored the valuable insurance goal, putting the USA on its way to the quarterfinals with a 2-0 win.
Johnston, Lloyd combine to send USA to the semis
Like the USA's opponents before it, China put up a valiant fight in keeping the USA off the scoreboard, but its defensive standout and midfield stalwart came through with the only tally that was necessary.
Johnston's long chip forward off a set piece was met by a leaping Lloyd, who nodded it down and inside the far post for the game-winning goal in a 1-0 victory, ensuring the USA would have no penalty kick drama in a rematch of the 1999 final.
Johnston's reprieve, Sasic's miss
The USA's 2-0 win over Germany will be remembered as its finest game in Canada (well, let's see how the final plays out), but it can't be stated enough how very close the Americans were to going down both a goal and a player.
Shortly into the second half, Johnston was guilty of pulling down Alexandra Popp in the USA box but got away with only a yellow card despite appearing to deny an obvious goalscoring opportunity.
Even so, the penalty gave Germany, which had never missed a PK on the Women's World Cup stage, a chance to go ahead from the spot. Despite Solo diving the wrong way, Sasic missed wide left (much like Wambach against Colombia).
With Sasic's miss moments before still fresh, the ever-cool Lloyd dispatched her second penalty of the tournament after Morgan was taken down at the edge of the Germany box (replays would show the foul occurred outside of the box) and broke the 0-0 deadlock with the Germans to put the USA on the front foot.
O'Hara cements the victory
Coming off the bench with fresh legs after showing very well in a spot start in the quarterfinals, Kelley O'Hara iced the semifinal win with her first international goal. And what a time to score it. With Germany clinging on for dear life, O'Hara gave the final nudge, timing her run perfectly to meet Lloyd's pinpoint cross.