Florence Lloyd-Hughes looks back at England’s Women’s World Cup exit after a 2-1 defeat to USA.
In the same week that the US celebrates its Independence Day, this match could, and probably was in some media, billed as a battle of old foes. A dominant women’s football super power facing an ever-growing force in the women’s game. This game could have changed which part of the world rules women’s football for the next four years, a semi-final but a defining moment for the game.
Unfortunately, for ‘brave’ England it proved to be a familiar ending as missed opportunities and missed penalties haunted the nation again.
The lead up to the match was dominated by stereotypical mind games from both sides. ‘Hotel gate’ came and went, as did a hotly anticipated Bronze-Rapinoe face off.
Rapinoe said she was sidelined because of a slight hamstring injury, but the absence made Jill Ellis look like a genius as Rapinoe’s replacement Christen Press caused havoc.
The US started the game with the same intensity and aggression that secured an early goal against France in Paris last Friday. From the first minute the Americans pressured England, forcing them back and crossing in dangerous balls that even Lucy Bronze was struggling to cope with.
England’s resistance to an expected early onslaught was the key to them having any chance of winning the tie but, they couldn’t hold out for long.
Just minutes after Rose Lavelle had nutmegged Millie Bright, turned Demi Stokes and fired a powerful shot at Carly Telford, the US were back in England’s penalty box. Tobin Heath played a clever pass to Kelley O’Hara, who dispatched a perfect cross to the awaiting Press. England’s poor marking was exposed, and Press had the pleasure of nodding the US into the lead.
It was inevitable and seemed like it could be the first of many, but somehow England managed to bounce back. There were glimmers of that cliché ‘Lioness’ spirit that had been talked about on social media and across English TV and radio stations. England were up for the fight and Ellen White was ready to be the hero.
White connected with a Beth Mead cross to put England back in the game and lift her team-mates, who at times looked overwhelmed and in awe of the US swagger.
The US regained their lead before the end of the first half and it was another header. Alex Morgan found space behind Stokes and Bright to nod home Lindsay Horan’s cross.
Morgan celebrated by pretending to drink a cup of tea and Twitter predictably exploded with laughter and feigned outrage. If the US’ celebrations during their 13-0 drubbing of Thailand caused a stir this was a whirlpool. A harmless expression of humour and a sign of the US’ bottomless pit of confidence.
Regardless of the mockery, England ended the half a goal down.
England continued to play their game and build from the back in the second half. There weren’t any tactical changes and the game plan remained the same, try and get the ball to White.
Defensive frailties and mistakes have been England’s biggest weakness throughout this tournament and on Tuesday, the same issues emerged over and over again. Houghton, who has shown her undeniable leadership and ability to slide in for a last-ditch tackles and goal-line clearances, was unable to clear her lines and distributed poorly which prevented England from relieving pressure. Bright, who was eventually sent off for two Morgan fouls, didn’t help her captain and was often panicking to get the ball away.
England never looked particularly comfortable, but they never gave up. The equaliser seemed to arrive when Jill Scott’s soft chip found its way to White, who coolly slotted home. But, VAR giveth and VAR taketh away. The goal was reviewed and disallowed.
Back to 2-1. England pressed and continued to search for White. Stokes ran down the left and squared the ball to White who couldn’t connect and hit the turf. It looked like a missed opportunity, but after protests from White, the referee Edina Alves Batista reviewed the chance and awarded England a penalty. But who would take it? Nikita Parris, who had missed two penalties so far, or captain Houghton.
The Manchester City defender picked up the ball and prepared to take the game into extra-time. A player so talented and assured in dead ball situations, surely, she would bring it home?
Nope, a scuffed pass-shot rolled into the gloves of US goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher. The penalty moved so slowly that Naeher could have probably saved it with her eyes closed. A poor penalty by Houghton’s own omission and the signalling of the end of England’s journey.
The ‘pride’ and the ‘bravery’ is what many will look to for reassurance, but in reality, England made far too many mistakes and were outplayed by a team of soccer robots that have ‘win’ programmed in them.
Follow Florence on Twitter at @floydtweet