LYON, France — An enduring story line at this Women’s World Cup is the narrowing gap between soccer’s upper class and the ascending programs. And certainly there is some truth to that, as favorites at times have sweated out tight matches and nascent sides have shown great promise.
Amid the evolving landscape, though, the United States has remained a constant, fending off stiff European challenges in the knockout stage and moving within one step of a sixth championship-game appearance in eight tournaments.
The next hurdle is England, a team in terrific form, rolling in confidence and, like Spain and France before it, primed to upset the top-ranked Americans. The winner of Tuesday’s semifinal will face the Netherlands or Sweden here Sunday.
England Coach Phil Neville, a former Manchester United and World Cup defender who has been on the job since January 2018, has instilled a belief that the Lionesses’ time has come.
“The 18-month plan, I believe, will come to fruition Tuesday night,” he said. “That would be a barometer of what we’ve done, what we’ve trained, what we’ve believed in, what we have done on and off the pitch. The spirit of togetherness has to come to fruition.”
The Lionesses finished third at the World Cup four years ago in Canada and lost in the semifinals of the most recent European Championship (2017).
England possesses quality players, but what the team now carries is a belief they can topple the three-time champions — and for good reason. Early this year, Neville’s squad won the annual SheBelieves Cup, a U.S.-hosted competition that also included French-bound Brazil and Japan. The U.S.-England tilt finished in a 2-2 draw.
“You can see that energy and see that passion when you watch them play,” U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher said. “It doesn’t surprise me they are confident coming into it.”
Said U.S. forward Megan Rapinoe, who plays for Reign FC, “They should absolutely feel confident. We love a good bit of confidence in America, don’t we?”
Over the years, the United States has remained supreme because of not just waves of talent, but a mindset that nothing would get in its way. In the World Cup, the Americans have not lost in regulation time since the last game of the 2011 group stage. The 12-0-3 streak ties Germany’s 15-game record, set in 2003-11.
“The team rises to the occasion,” U.S. forward Christen Press said. “Throughout our history, watching the team, being on the team, playing for the team, we have done a great job flipping pressure and making it inspiration, making it motivation. We know when the stakes are the highest, when the games are the biggest, you have to find another level in yourself.”
Some have interpreted that as arrogance — predictably, it’s been a hot topic in the headline-hungry English tabloids. Fueling the distaste for the U.S. team were some of the second-half goal celebrations during the 13-0 rout of Thailand in the Group F opener.
Neville, though, said he admires the U.S. swagger and confidence.
“America has got that ruthless streak of wanting to win,” Neville said. “You saw the last five minutes against France. They knew what it took to win, and they celebrated like winners. That’s what I admire, and that’s what my team has now.”
Asked about U.S. ruthlessness, Press said, “I would characterize it as optimism we are going to win. But there is a ruthlessness to it, and that is win at all costs.”
England, ranked No. 3 by FIFA, also employs the players to make a run at the United States. Lucy Bronze is an attack-minded right back — Neville calls her the best player in the world, regardless of position — and forward Ellen White shares the tournament scoring lead with five goals. California-born Karen Bardsley is an experienced goalkeeper.
Like the United States, the Lionesses have won all five matches. Their scoring margin is 11-1, including 3-0 victories over Cameroon and Norway in the knockout stage.
“We have players who love these big games, love these big moments,” English captain Steph Houghton said. “They don’t come much bigger than a semifinal against the world champions.”
Houghton added that, “for those players involved in 2015, we never really expected to get to that semifinal. In that position now, we can use that experience to remain calm and collected. As the boss says, keep being brave, enjoy the moment.”
The United States has enjoyed many moments over the years. All of them, the players say, are behind them.
After Friday’s nerve-racking victory over France, Coach Jill Ellis huddled her team on the field for an important message.
“I just reminded them,” she said, “we are just getting warmed up. “