Soccer

U.S. back line has been front and center throughout Women’s World Cup

Defensive stalwart: Julie Johnston, right, is a breakout star who made the U.S. roster only because of injuries to others.
Defensive stalwart: Julie Johnston, right, is a breakout star who made the U.S. roster only because of injuries to others. AP

Much of the glory went to U.S. goal scorers Carli Lloyd and Kelley O’Hara for the team’s thrilling 2-0 victory over Germany on Tuesday night in the Women’s World Cup semifinals. Both goals made for great TV — Lloyd’s ice-breaking penalty kick and O’Hara’s charging shot that gave the Americans a comfortable cushion in the 84th minute.

But equally heroic in Montreal — and throughout the tournament — has been the U.S. back line, a quartet of tenacious, smart defenders who have taken a lot of pressure off goalkeeper Hope Solo.

The U.S. defense is on a 513-minute shutout streak heading into Sunday’s final despite Solo making only 12 saves through six matches. The only goal the team has given up was in the 27th minute of its opening match against Australia.

Since then, the Americans have shut out Sweden, Nigeria, Colombia, China and Germany, which entered Tuesday’s game as the Cup’s most potent offense with 20 goals. The U.S. team has scored only nine goals through six games and hasn’t had to rely on spectacular saves by Solo because opponents are having so much trouble getting past Meghan Klingenberg, Julie Johnston, Becky Sauerbrunn and Ali Krieger.

The old cliché is that defense wins championships, and in this case, Team USA is one win away from proving that true.

“If you don’t give up any goals, I think you have a hell of a chance [to win the World Cup],” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said earlier in the tournament.

U.S. defenders have done a masterful job of reading opponents, positioning themselves to cut off angles, slide tackling when necessary, controlling the air, and launching the attack from the back.

“It’s a spectacular stat, to be honest with you,” Ellis said Tuesday night of the shutout streak. “We said as a team we need to get just one more than the opponent if we keep a clean sheet. Not just our goalkeeper and our back four, I think that this team has embraced the accountability and responsibility of defending in every line.

“It’s something we ask of them — but they deliver and they understand that it’s important. We’ve got gritty players in the back, we’ve got sophisticated players in the back and they just do a great job of reading the game and shutting down the opponent.”

The anchors of the group are center backs Sauerbrunn and Johnston. Sauerbrunn, a 30-year-old from St. Louis, is the only player to have played every minute of every game this year (1,419 minutes). Johnston is the 23-year-old breakout star from Phoenix who made the roster because of injuries to more experienced players.

Sauerbrunn and Johnston have played all 540 minutes of this tournament, as have Solo, Klingenberg and Lloyd. Sauerbrunn is the calm leader, known for her smart positioning and ability to direct her teammates to the right spaces. Johnston has made her mark with big, dramatic, timely tackles and a knack for pushing up and becoming a scoring threat. She almost scored against Germany.

Both have an excellent soccer IQ, which comes as little surprise considering they were excellent students. Johnston was in the National Honor Society. Sauerbrunn was an English major at the University of Virginia and named National Scholar of the Year by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America.

But against Germany, Johnston made an ill-advised move that could have cost the United States a goal. In the 59th minute and no score, she was called for a foul in the penalty box after pulling down German forward Alexandra Popp by the shoulder.

German star Celia Sasic stepped up to take the penalty kick. Germany had never missed one in tournament history. Solo dove to her left, Sasic shot to Solo’s right, but it sailed wide. Johnston, one of the most emotional players on the team, went from dejection to elation.

“It was definitely an emotional roller coaster, as you saw,” Johnston said. “The possibility that I hurt the team was on my shoulders. It was really hard. I thought I definitely screwed that one up for the team. And I definitely am very apologetic for that.”

Sauerbrunn was one of the first to console her.

“Becky’s my backbone,” Johnston said. “She keeps me sane. She’s a warrior. I just always want to play well for her and the back line and seeing her look at me and smile; that really made me take a deep breath and know we’re still in this game. It’s a team sport and the team really stepped up for me and I really can’t thank them enough. I’m sure I’ll thank them all the way to the final.”

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