MONTREAL -- When it comes to winning a Women's World Cup, there are plenty of attributes that are needed to be a champion. There's skill, smarts and heart.
Luck is required as well, and in Tuesday's semifinal between the U.S. and Germany, it was evident Germany's was gone after its penalty shootout defeat of France in the previous round, while the U.S still had plenty left in the tank. That proved critical in the Americans' 2-0 victory that saw them progress to the Women's World Cup final.
To be clear, the U.S. was a worthy victor, carrying the play for much of the night and creating the better chances overall. It was by far the team's most complete performance of the tournament. But one only had to look at the penalty that led to Carli Lloyd's game-winner to see that fortune smiled on the Americans. There was no doubting German defender Annike Krahn ended Alex Morgan's determined run in the 67th minute by fouling the U.S. forward. But replays clearly showed the infraction took place outside the box and that a free kick should have been given instead.
Of course, it is not up to the players to determine the justness of such a decision. It's only up to them to take advantage of the breaks that are given to them. This would prove critical as well. Lloyd duly dispatched the spot kick, sending Nadine Angerer the wrong way, and the Americans had a lead they would never relinquish.
Germany couldn't do the same when handed a similar opportunity. Julie Johnston was whistled for a penalty in the 59th minute when she made an ill-advised decision to head back to goalkeeper Hope Solo instead of clear. When Alexandra Popp knifed in to steal the pass, Johnston hauled her down. But German forward Celia Sasic, who had converted from the spot twice earlier in the tournament, contrived to send her shot wide, and the Americans were allowed to regroup. Johnston was lucky, too, in receiving only a yellow card.
But for all the talk of luck, this was a case of fortune favoring the brave. For almost the entire tournament, the U.S. players had been chafing under Ellis' conservative tactical approach. There were signs of more aggression against China, but in this match, Ellis fully engaged her team's attacking throttle, opting to start the match with a 4-2-3-1 formation that featured Lloyd in an attacking midfielder with Lauren Holiday and Morgan Brian both covering her back.
The move worked a treat in a wide open first 45 minutes. The U.S. was aggressive, moved the ball at a crisp tempo, and while Germany probably should have done better with some set piece chances and opportunities in transition, it was the Americans who created the half's better chances. In fact, the U.S. would have been good value for a 2-0 lead, but a combination of solid goalkeeping from Angerer and poor finishing -- Morgan was the primary culprit here -- kept the score level.
A brief German revival at the start of the second half left the impression that Morgan's wastefulness might come back to haunt the Americans. But then the tale of two penalties ensued, and the night was capped off in the 84th minute when a brilliant individual effort from Lloyd on the left wing saw her cross stabbed home by substitute Kelley O'Hara to make the game safe.
The U.S. appears to be peaking at the right time, and will face the winner of the Wednesday's semifinal between Japan and England on Sunday in Vancouver. The way the Americans are playing, one has to like their chances.
Player ratings: (0-10)
G Hope Solo, 6: Played safe on one shot from Alexandra Popp, opting to push over the bar, but was otherwise untroubled.
D Meghan Klingenberg, 5: Seemed a step late in the early going and struggled mightily with her distribution in the first half. But she hung in there, picked up her game considerably after halftime, and played a part in O'Hara's goal.
D Becky Sauerbrunn, 7: Put out plenty of fires thanks to her speed. Took one for the team with a 38th minute booking. Another excellent performance.
D Julie Johnston, 6: Made so many great decisions on the night, but one poor choice to head back to Solo, and the subsequent foul on Popp nearly cost the Americans. Fortunately, Sasic missed the spot kick.
D Ali Krieger, 6: Solid defensively in her duels with Popp and then Simone Laudehr, but her crosses lacked accuracy.
M Megan Rapinoe, 6: Mixed good with bad, and needed to connect better on one shot that Angerer saved. Her work rate on defense was outstanding.
M Lauren Holiday, 6: Quietly efficient, and played some pinpoint long passes to allow the U.S. to break out.
M Morgan Brian, 7.5: Gave the U.S. just what it needed in the middle, passing and tackling with composure. Bounced back well from a clash of heads with Popp.
M Carli Lloyd, 6.5: Looked sharp both running at defenders and with her back to goal in the early going. She then faded a bit, only to make a killer play at the end, assisting on O'Hara's goal.
M Tobin Heath, 5.5: Inconsistent with her passing, but did have some moments of brilliance, including one when she put Morgan in on goal. Had some good touches when she tucked in centrally.
F Alex Morgan, 6: Her overall game was better than against China, but her finishing let her down in a huge way. That said, her determination to make an aggressive run led to the penalty.
M Kelley O'Hara, 8: Timed her run perfectly on her goal, and prodded home Lloyd's cross.
F Abby Wambach, 6: Looked sharp in a brief stint.
F Sydney Leroux, NR: Late cameo for the U.S. forward.