The US women's national team changed up their lineup for their quarterfinal match against China, and it paid off with their best performance of the Women's World Cup to date, a 1-0 win at TD Place Stadium in Ottawa that could've easily been been a far more lopsided result.
Carli Lloyd was the one who finally beat Chinese goalkeeper Wang Fei in the 51st minute, nodding a Julie Johnston delivery into the net to push the USWNT into the semifinals against Germany – who edged France in a tense penalty-kick shootout on Friday afternoon – in Montreal on Tuesday.
#USWNT backline of Klingenberg, Sauerbrunn, Johnston and Krieger (w/Solo in goal) now has a 0.18 goals against average in 11 starts together— John D. Halloran (@JohnDHalloran) June 27, 2015
Already without Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday due to suspension, US coach Jill Ellis made a number of other changes to her starting XI, handing young Morgan Brian the holding midfield role, giving Kelley O'Hara her first start of the tournament at right midfield opposite Tobin Heath and inserting Amy Rodriguez up top.
The moves nearly paid off immediately as a lovely through ball from Lloyd gave Rodriguez a great look at goal in the second minute. But the FC Kansas City standout tried to finish with the outside of her boot and skewed her shot badly wide as a result.
The US also adopted a more aggressive high-pressing approach that denied China much time on the ball, sparking a much more energetic and effective performance as they seized control of the game's tempo.
The Yanks piled on the pressure in the 26th minute, as China struggled to clear a Heath set-piece delivery and Wang flapped at a subsequent cross, but Johnston's shot was cleared off the line by the backtracking Li Dongna.
The US continued to pin the Chinese back into their own half for long periods, often winning possession back soon after turning it over thanks to the hard pressing of strikers Rodriguez and Alex Morgan. Though they carved open a number of promising looks at goal over the course of the first half, the finishing touch eluded them over and over and the scoreless deadlock remained.
Lloyd was looking liberated by the stabilizing presence of Brian behind her, and ranged forward to good effect on a play that should've put the US in front just before halftime.
Receiving a lofted pass with her back to goal deep inside the China penalty box, Lloyd spotted Morgan behind her and dropped an excellent layoff into her path. But the striker took a heavy first touch, allowing her shot to be blocked at close range.
While the USWNT had shown significantly more urgency and quality over the first 45 minutes than in their matches to date, they still had nothing to show for it as they went into the locker room at intermission.
But the red wall of resistance would break down just six minutes after the break.
Heath won a free kick in the Chinese half, but instead of serving it directly into the box, the Americans played it wide to Johnston, who launched a booming ball into the goalmouth, where Lloyd leaped highest to nod a sharp header down past Wang and into the right side of the net for a well-deserved 1-0 lead.
Substitute Christen Press clanged a curling blast off the crossbar in the 73rd minute, but the USWNT failed to find the second goal that would've sealed the victory sooner.
Yet with China only able to carve out speculative chances that rarely troubled goalkeeper Hope Solo, the US ran their WWC shutout streak past the 400-minute mark and secured the 1-0 result that keeps them on course for World Cup glory.
Make that 423 minutes without conceding for the U.S. this World Cup. Defense has definitely been the star of the show. | China 0-1 U.S. | FT— Liviu Bird (@liviubird) June 27, 2015
Now their biggest test of the month – by far – awaits in No.1-ranked Germany.