MONTREAL -- It's not often that the U.S. enters a match as an underdog, but that is precisely the case ahead of Tuesday's Women's World Cup semifinal against top-ranked Germany.
The reigning European champions were pushed to the limit in their quarterfinal against France, prevailing in a penalty shootout. But Germany has produced enough sparkling moments during the tournament -- especially in the attacking half -- to indicate it has what it takes to lift the trophy on July 5.
The U.S. has had decidedly fewer flashes of brilliance, but its defense has been brilliant throughout, meaning Tuesday's encounter figures to be an enthralling contest.
What's on the line?
A trip to next Sunday's final in Vancouver, British Columbia, is at stake, and with it the possibility of becoming the first team to win the Women's World Cup three times. The U.S. prevailed in 1991 and 1999, while Germany won in 2003 and 2007.
Style and tactics
Germany operates out of a 4-4-2, with one forward -- either Anja Mittag or Dzsenifer Marozsan -- dropping occasionally into midfield, the better to combine with primary striker Celia Sasic.
Germany possesses an impressive blend of technique and physicality and has a varied attack. There are times where it attempts to play through central midfielders Lena Gossling and Melanie Leupholz, but it can also play direct and try to win second balls in the opposition half when it has to.
"It's a team that's powerful, they're competitive, they're combative, play a lot of longer balls and look to pick up second balls, and we're going to have to be very strong in the air," said U.S. manager Jill Ellis. "They're a great team in every line, they've got personality players."
Outside backs Leonie Maier and Tabea Kemme also prefer to get into the attack, though France nearly punished Germany for this tactic by having its forwards make diagonal runs in behind the outside defenders. The return of experienced center back Saskia Bartusiak from suspension should bolster the team's defensive organization, but overall, defense remains Germany's biggest weakness in that it lacks pace.
Germany manager Silvia Neid said her side was fortunate to survive a slow start against France, and that approach can't be duplicated against the Americans.
"We had a little bit of a trouble [getting] into that match against France," Neid said at Monday's press conference. "That wasn't good. We want to do much better [Tuesday]. We want to be more agile right from the [start]. We want to be much more robust in challenges, we want to be braver, be up and down the field. We want to play soccer. We just want to leave a good impression and show them where we're headed, right from the get go."
Ellis seems likely to persist with a 4-4-2, and will have the midfield duo of Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday back from suspension. Rapinoe seems a cinch to start given her creativity. Holiday's status is less certain, though Ellis seemed to hint that her former charge at UCLA would be back in the lineup. When asked if she would like to get both Carli Lloyd and Holiday forward, Ellis said, "Let's hope so. We'll figure that out. They're both attacking personalities, but it's picking and choosing their moments. Germany is a tremendous transition team, so it's finding that measure and that balance."
But a broader question is, what tactical approach will Ellis take? Will it be the cautious, defense-first system seen during the group stage and Round-of-16 match against Colombia, or will it be the aggressive, high-pressing style seen against China?
If Ellis opts for the former, look for the U.S. to take a direct approach and play off of target forward Abby Wambach, and try to get outside backs Meghan Klingenberg and Ali Krieger into the attack. If she goes for the latter, look for the team to play through Lloyd and Rapinoe and utilize the pace of forward Alex Morgan.
Irrespective of the attacking approach, the U.S. defense has been nearly impenetrable. Julie Johnston and Becky Sauerbrunn have both been in imperious form, and the U.S. has gone 423 minutes without conceding since Australia's Lisa De Vanna scored against it in the opener.
Players to watch
For Germany: Tabea Kemme, Dzsenifer Marozsan, Celia Sasic
Kemme, Germany's left back, is viewed as the weak link in defense, and was given a torrid time in the quarterfinal by France midfielder Élodie Thomis. An ankle injury likely will prevent Marozsan from being in the starting lineup, and Neid said she wouldn't know until game day if the attacker will play. Marozsan provides a creative threat when she drops and finds the pocket between defense and midfield, as does Anja Mittag, her likely replacement. Sasic is the most complete forward in the tournament, and will be handful for the U.S. defense with her strength, touch and finishing ability.
For the U.S.: Hope Solo, Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan
In terms of shot-stopping, Solo hasn't been all that busy since the opener against Australia, but chances are she'll need to deliver an impressive save or two against Germany. Lloyd had her best outing of the tournament against China, and it will be interesting to see if she is given the same amount of freedom in this match. Morgan will be going up against club teammate and German international goalkeeper Nadine Angerer. There will be no secrets there, but Morgan's speed will be critical to creating space underneath for the likes of Lloyd and Rapinoe.
What we can expect
It's a case of the teams' respective strengths going up against one another (the U.S. defense vs. Germany's offense) and the same is true for their less potent aspects (Germany's defense vs. the Americans' attack).
In terms of whether to press high or defend deep, the U.S. must try to find a middle ground. France showed what can happen when a highly technical team goes at Germany's defense, but Germany has the kind of technical ability that can be lethal if it breaks the first line of pressure, so the Americans will need to pick their spots.
That hints at a cagey opening half hour or so, in which Germany will take more attacking risks than the Americans. That could result in some counterattacking opportunities for the U.S. through the speed of Morgan. There also will be a chance to test Germany's outside backs through Rapinoe on the left and one of Tobin Heath or Kelley O'Hara on the right.
"To attack in the shape that they want to attack, they've got to give spaces as do we," said Ellis. "We do have an athletic team, but it can't be just about pushing the ball down the field and hoping we run on the end of it because Germany's back line drops very well, they're very good in the air."
That said, Germany likely will have more possession, and the U.S. will need to weather some long stretches without the ball. France was ultimately undone by poor finishing. The U.S. will need to be at its most clinical to prevail.
Aside from one penalty shootout victory at the 2006 Algarve Cup, Germany hasn't beaten the U.S. since its semifinal triumph at the 2003 Women's World Cup. Since that defeat in Portland, the U.S. is 6-0-5 against Germany. But current form will play a bigger role than history, and Germany has the edge in that category.
The U.S. can expect another pro-American crowd in excess of 50,000 fans at the Olympic Stadium, which will provide a significant emotional boost.
There's a sense that Germany might have used up all its luck in defeating France. Neid didn't deny her team's reservoir of good fortune has been depleted to a degree.
"Maybe we used it all up," she said. "That's why we'll have to win it with pure skill. But maybe the Lord has a little bit of good luck left for us."
Which team will win?
Germany looked vulnerable against France, but seems to match up better against the U.S. in that it has more attackers closer to top form. Look for Germany to prevail 2-1 in extra time.