It's not the final of the Women's World Cup, but when the United States and Germany meet in the semifinals, it will be the best match of the tournament. Or the second best, behind Germany and France's quarterfinal match-up.
Germany are the undisputed best team in the world, but the U.S. are ranked. France are third, with an argument that they are better than the Americans, and they looked every bit as good as the Germans in forcing penalty kicks, but they crashed out. So now it's 1 vs. 2, and the U.S. are looking to prove that they can hang with the best team in the world. If they can, and they win, they'll be 90 minutes away from a World Cup title.
That World Cup title is especially important to both of these teams, for more than the obvious reason of being crowned the best team on Earth. Both have won the World Cup twice before, more than any other teams in the world, and are in pursuit of a record third title. If either wins this tournament, they will lay claim to the designation of the best women's soccer team in the sports history.
This is as heavyweight a match-up as heavyweight match-ups go. There won't be a field that features more of the world's best players or bigger stars. They have the history and the present. They have the quality and the stakes are nearly as high as possible.
It's the U.S. vs. Germany. It's the best of the best.
And what do the U.S. have to do to win?
Win the goalkeeper match-up
Hope Solo has been at the heart of a lot of controversy, but she's flown under the radar at the World Cup. There have been no incidents, she's barely been made available to the media so none of her problems have been brought up and with the U.S. defense playing so well, she hasn't been called upon to make a huge impact on the field. But Solo will be tested and tested often against Germany.
Germany's Celia Sasic leads the World Cup with six goals and her teammate Anja Mittag is second with five goals. As a team, the Germans have 20 goals, giving them an average of four per game. So no matter how good the U.S. defense has been and how well they play against Germany, Solo will have to make a her share of great saves.
Solo won't be the only great goalkeeper on the pitch, though. Nadine Angerer has long been one of the best in the world and has seen her name right there next to Solo's in the discussion for the best goalkeeper on Earth. But as good as she has been before, she hasn't been at her best in the World Cup. Her footwork and positioning has been suspect, while she's been shaky coming off of her line on crosses. Nobody has made Angerer pay for her miscues yet, but she hasn't looked the part of World Player of the Year, which she won two years ago.
If the U.S. is going to win, Solo will have to be great, and she'll have to be much better than Angerer. The good news is that recent form makes that a pretty good bet.
Hold their own in the midfield
Germany have the best midfield in the world. Melanie Leupolz and Lens Goesslin are spectacular holder, Alexandra Popp and Simone Laudehr are on the wings and Mittag is at the point of it all. They're so good that Dzsenifer Masozsan comes off the bench and Germany haven't missed reigning World Player of the Year Nadine Kessler in the least bit so far.
Every team in the world struggles to match the Germany midfield, but the U.S. will have another problem -- they'll be outnumbered. The U.S. leans on a four-player midfield, while Germany puts five in the middle. So in addition to the talent gulf that Germany enjoys, they'll also have a numerical advantage.
Jill Ellis could try to rectify that by dropping a striker and adding a midfielder, something that would allow for Carli Lloyd, Lauren Holiday and Morgan Brian to all play, but that is entirely unlikely. The U.S. team has been playing in a 4-4-2 almost exclusively and haven't played with a five-player midfield in years.
It's unrealistic to ask the U.S. midfield to play toe-to-toe with Germany, let alone out-play them. The Germans are going to have the edge in the midfield, but the Americans need to make sure that they do enough not to lose the match there. That doesn't necessarily have to be with possession, but simply protecting the back line, keeping some semblance of tempo and moving the ball quickly enough to cause problems for Germany would be more than enough. Even that is a tall task, but they have to do it.
Win on set pieces
Germany's outstanding midfield is going to make it difficult for the U.S. to gain an edge from the run of play, but they can get a leg up on set pieces. The Americans are a big team that are good in the air and they need to take advantage of that.
Ellis has made it clear that she puts an inordinate amount of emphasis on set pieces, but so far it has no paid off. They have scored just one goal on set pieces all tournament long. That's simply not good enough and the U.S. needs to do better against Germany. Having Holiday and Megan Rapinoe back from suspension will make their dead ball play better, but they need to get on the other end of those passes and convert.
Getting an edge on set pieces is difficult against Germany. They have scored several set pieces goals this tournament and can match the Americans' height and strength. But with the advantages that Germany have elsewhere, the U.S. can't afford to lose the set piece battle. They probably can't even afford to draw even from them. The Americans needs to find the back of the net from a dead ball and defend like hell to keep the Germans quiet on theirs.