LYON, France -- Without Megan Rapinoe -- the star of the tournament to this point and the charismatic talisman who was missing with a hamstring injury -- the U.S. women Tuesday still found a pair of goals for the third game in a row to beat England 2-1 with a little help from VAR and their goalkeeper.
For the fifth time, the United States will play for the World Cup title. For the first time, it has a chance to win back-to-back titles.
Starting for just the second time in the tournament, Christen Press put the U.S. women in front with one of the team's increasingly trademark early goals in the 10th minute.
After England pulled level soon after, Alex Morgan scored in the 31st minute to put the United States in front again. Scoring for the first time since a record five-goal outburst in the opening game, she is tied for the lead in the race for the Golden Boot as the World Cup's top scorer.
In a tournament that began with a controversy about celebrating goals and only got stranger from there, it is perhaps fitting that an explanation of a goal celebration summed up the route to Sunday's final.
After scoring what proved to be the deciding goal, Morgan mimicked drinking tea. She said she felt responsible for keeping celebrations interesting with the ever-creative Rapinoe out of the mix.
"I feel like this team just has had so much thrown at us," Morgan said. "I feel like we didn't take the easy route to the final this tournament."
Never easy. Also not yet over.
The U.S. women now await the winner of Wednesday's semifinal between the Netherlands and Sweden. The Dutch are the reigning European champions and yet another team from the continent on the rise. The United States beat Sweden in the final game of group play, but that final would again bring up memories of the 2016 Olympics, in which Sweden eliminated the U.S. women in the quarterfinals.
VAR giveth, and Alyssa Naeher taketh away
The U.S. women had never allowed two goals to slip away in seven previous World Cup semifinals. They still haven't, but their mark was saved by a matter of inches.
England's Ellen White appeared to tie the score 2-2 with a goal midway through the second half, getting behind the American back line off a deflection from England's Jill Scott. The crowd roared, England celebrated, and both teams took their positions around the midfield stripe.
Then came the check. Replays showed that White was the slightest bit offside. As FIFA refereeing czar Pierluigi Collina said in a VAR briefing last week in Paris, there is no "almost" offside. The check came back quickly: no goal.
But VAR wasn't finished, and neither was White. After Demi Stokes slipped behind the U.S. back line with about 10 minutes to play and put a cross in front of goal, White appeared to whiff on the ball as Becky Sauerbrunn slipped behind her. But after a U.S. sub, the referee again brought the game to a stop for VAR. The result was a penalty for England on a yellow card for Sauerbrunn.
"I thought it was a ... 100 percent chance goal-scoring opportunity, so I know I had to make a play on the ball," Sauerbrunn said. "I haven't seen the foul, but VAR deemed it a PK. So it gave Alyssa a chance, and she came up huge and saved the team."
England captain Steph Houghton took the penalty, but Naeher got down quickly to her right to save what was a relatively weak penalty. So much for missing Hope Solo.
"Just try to get a good read on it," Naeher said of her thought process. "Try to take a few deep breaths and get focused on the ball, focused on the play."
There was little Naeher could do on England's goal in the first half, when White appeared to almost mishit a shot that banked in off the post after slipping between U.S. defenders. But with the prospect of extra time looming if Houghton converted the PK -- and those extra minutes for a team that had such limited rest in this tournament -- Naeher made her mark.
"We all had so much faith in her," Rose Lavelle said. "We see what she does in practice every day. She saves our own penalties, to our frustration."
No Rapinoe, no problem ... for now
Rapinoe's omission looked like the story that would dominate the night. Instead, as big as her status remains moving forward with what she described as a minor hamstring strain, the lineup changes, with Press and Lindsey Horan taking the field, shaped the game.
It's difficult for Press to be at the center of a heated controversy. She's too thoughtful, calm and generally introspective. Heated controversy has no oxygen to ignite. But Press has for years been a puzzle for fans. So good at the club level, first in Sweden and now back in the NWSL, she never seemed to land on the right side of the depth chart for the national team.
Press started and scored in her World Cup debut in the team's opening game of the 2015 tournament but dropped out of the rotation en route to a title. She missed the final penalty kick in the quarterfinal exit against Sweden in the Olympics. Press never seemed to catch the break her talent suggested was inevitable.
She sure seemed to seize this moment.
"I think that the most proud moments I've had in my career are after failures," Press said, "When you kind of learn that the sun also rises, and the world keeps spinning when you fail and when you succeed. And that kind of has built for me a steadiness, a calmness. The World Cup is crazy -- it's intense, it's emotional. And for me, that doesn't serve the way I play well.
"So I've tried to create a steadiness through it. I have to be prepared to play 90 minutes. I have to be prepared to not play at all. I have to be prepared to play four minutes and close out a game. You just never know what you're going to get. And you can't let any of those circumstances affect you or what you can do. You have to be confident and believe in yourself."
Her role in the goals was obviously vital, first scoring a rare header and then playing a part in the buildup for Morgan's goal. But her energy tracking back all game was equally instrumental Tuesday. Rapinoe has gotten vastly better at that, but it isn't her bread and butter.
"She was stretching the back line," Morgan said of Press. "She could also play the nine role, so there were a lot of times we were interchanging, sometimes naturally throughout the game. We didn't have to go back to that usual position with me as the nine and her as the 11. We kind of just let the game take it.
"I think both her and Lindsey Horan stepped in and played their roles tremendously."
A curious omission from the starting lineup the past two games, Horan showed one of the reasons she's so valuable with the pass that Morgan finished for the second goal.
The entire sequence of the second goal was a thing of beauty, starting with Abby Dahlkemper's 45-yard cross-field pass to Press. But the final pass that Horan almost seemed to place on Morgan's head was the masterpiece. It's the kind of pass that the U.S. women lost without Lauren Holiday -- and the kind of thing they regained with Horan coming into her own.
After the game, Rapinoe said, "I'll be ready for the final."
England's defensive frailties exposed
Rose Lavelle will be in the England players' nightmares. Her ability to play in just about every position in the midfield and front three means she is so unpredictable and hard to track. Far too often, England played into the United States' hands. When the U.S. women were stretching their defense with long balls into the box and neat play on the flanks, England got sucked in and lost its shape.
Carly Telford is a wonderful shot-stopper, but it looked like communication was sometimes an issue in the box, with Telford and Houghton colliding in the first half when trying to clear a cross while they left the U.S. threats unmarked for their first-half goals. In other matches, England has looked on occasion vulnerable at the back -- but the U.S. women made them pay.
England struggled to cope with Morgan in that deeper role, and frustrations eventually got the better of England when Millie Bright was shown a second yellow card late for her tackle on the U.S. forward.
England had the chances but lacked composure
The U.S. women are masters of winding down the clock. It's in their winning nature, and England let frustration get the better of them in the closing stages.
But England had chances to equalize against the United States. White had an effort well saved close in, and then there was Houghton's penalty. England also had the goal ruled out through VAR.
England had far more chances in the second half but will rue a first 45 in which it, in the opening exchanges, looked a little overawed by the occasion. England's policy of playing out from the back saw it camped in its own half for stages, and again, England lacked a Plan B.
Phil Neville's decision to play Nikita Parris through the middle also, with the benefit of hindsight, did not work, as England lacked her lethal touch down the right, despite Rachel Daly's brilliant distribution. You simply have to convert those opportunities at this level.
The penalty curse continues
England has had four penalties in this World Cup and has missed three. How long ago it seems that Parris ran to the touchline after hammering home England's first goal of this World Cup against Scotland.
Houghton, England's captain and one of the team's best performers here in France, saw her 83-minute penalty well saved by Naeher. That follows Neville during the week saying that Parris was England's first-choice penalty-taker, despite missing efforts against Argentina and Norway. Something isn't quite right with the psychology around those penalties -- that, or the goalkeepers are now performing at such a level that regardless of the VAR limitations, they are now outperforming the attacker in those dead-ball situations.
Who needs rest?
This was the third consecutive game that the U.S. women played with at least one fewer day of rest than their opponent -- and these were some of Europe's best. On another warm night in Lyon, if not quite as severe as during the recent heat wave, that should have affected the oldest team in the tournament. But there was Tobin Heath, 31, sprinting past England's Demi Stokes early in the first half. There was Morgan, the day she celebrated her 30th birthday, absorbing another long night of contact and getting up every time to remain a presence as a center forward or out wide (the role she played at times in the same stadium during her time with Lyon).
Alex Morgan scored the game winner and moved to the top of the Golden Boot standings :muscle: pic.twitter.com/BUBEKhEMSq
- ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) July 2, 2019
It isn't the most glamorous thing to talk about on a team full of such talent and personalities, but American fitness is again one of the biggest reasons that the United States has a chance to retain its title. Rapinoe's injury is partly such news because it is the exception to the rule for the U.S. women during this tournament. The fitness is first and foremost the work of the players, as well as an indication of how much competition for roster spots forces them to stay in peak form. But also spare a thought on this night for Dawn Scott. The U.S. high-performance coach isn't a name known to many, but U.S. players swear by the work she does behind the scenes.
On short rest yet again, that advantage stood out Tuesday.