If the United States had a golden, nigh-untouchable World Cup run, then South Korea had the exact opposite. They looked woefully unprepared for the tournament, and the big question mark for this game, besides how the US would compensate for their bevy of injured and unavailable players, was if Korea had been working on themselves in the months since the Cup. And it was apparent they had, as they gave the US fairly open end-to-end action in the first 10 minutes or so.
But they couldn’t maintain it, not under the general smothering weight of the US, even a US team that looked like they were half out of step with each other here and there, or flat in their buildup. For all that Korea stayed solid defensively, they refused to take risks going forward, with playmaker Ji Soyun usually slowing down Korean momentum and asking to play out of the back to numbers up in the attack every time they had control of the midfield.
The US had some trouble of their own, though. Ertz and Lavelle seemed to have some ideas about quickly moving the ball through the midfield and perhaps playing in Lloyd or Pugh in front of goal, but they were definitely a mix of slightly sloppy with taking too long to shoot. The most exciting scoring opportunity might have been Becky Sauerbrunn in the 43’, when she was still high and offering pressure that resulted in a turnover. Sauerbrunn took the ball to the top of the 18 and tried for a low, hard shot - why not? - but it was blocked out.
The US finally opened up scoring in stoppage as Megan Rapinoe hit a nice free kick that dropped right onto Allie Long’s foot far post. Long one-timed it, and though she might have been off, the goal stood and made it 1-0 to close out the first half.
The US made two subs at the half: Christen Press came on for Allie Long and Tierna Davidson came on for Crystal Dunn. Press moved up into the 9 and Lloyd dropped into the midfield, while Davidson was a like-for-like. The Press effect was immediate, her speed opening up the attacking half and dragging everyone else forward. It’s unfortunate that all her efforts to break through the defensive line and get in on goal didn’t yield a result; she hit the post, had a ball cleared off the line, and that was all on one attempt.
The US made another sub in the 66’ with Andi Sullivan on for Rose Lavelle. The Red Stars probably would have preferred to see Ertz come out; after all, the Spirit don’t have a semifinal game to prepare for and the Red Stars do. But that’s been the Julie Ertz story this year: indispensable, can’t be subbed, full 90 after full 90. To Ertz’s credit, she’s said she feels fine and her load management is handling it. But there’s no substitute for simply getting to sit for 90 or even 45 minutes.
The US tallied a second goal in the 76’ as Mal Pugh was left unmarked on a corner, despite three Korean defenders within a few feet of her. Pugh’s header off of Rapinoe’s corner was quick and decisive, although her choices and work on the ball weren’t quite the same for the rest of the game. She looked unwilling to really go at the Korean defense or take her chances.
The last sub was in the 78’ with Jess McDonald coming on for Rapinoe. Press shifted wide, a bit of a blow to a player looking as dangerous as Press had for the pats 33 minutes. Still, she stayed stuck in, providing a lovely ball to put McDonald in late in the game. But yet again, a one-on-one with Korea’s keeper yielded nothing but a goal kick back into US territory. It wasn’t quite the shooting form you’d expect from players so deep in their club season, but then again, we’ve already discussed how tired everyone must be, particularly given they dived right back into that season after an overheated, non-stop World Cup.
The game ended at 2-0 with probably more positive for Korea than the US, scoreline notwithstanding. The Koreans looked completely different from their ill-fated World Cup run, looking to pressure in midfield, earn turnovers, and keep the ball. But the Americans were made of bolder stuff and even though they had multiple absurd misses - Carli Lloyd’s header pinged down and bouncing over the goal comes to mind - you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. - Wayne Gretzky - Michael Scott