Jill Ellis’s master plan and sympathetic whistles have the U.S. in another World Cup final

The United States is going to the Women’s World Cup final. The Americans took on the top ranked team in the world, Germany, and beat it, 2-0, to not only stake its claim to the title of the best team on Earth but give it a chance on Sunday to win its third World Cup.

Head coach Jill Ellis got her tactics spot on from the start, eschewing her typical 4-4-2 formation to start five midfielders. With Morgan Brian and Lauren Holiday in deep midfield, Carli Lloyd was able to make an impact higher up the field, and Alex Morgan’s speed provided more than enough threat up top to make up for there only being one striker in the team. It was an approach that completely confounded a Germany team that clearly did not expect to see anything like it.

For much of the first half, the U.S. was dominant. Only two good saves by Nadine Angerer (not to mention some shaky finishing by Morgan) kept the U.S. from leading at the break.

By the time Lloyd danced through the German defense late, crossing for Kelley O’Hara to knock home the goal that wrapped up the match, the U.S. had a foot in the World Cup final. But in between halftime and O’Hara’s tally, the U.S. got a gift. Or two. or three. And as good as the Americans were, they owe the soccer gods a fair amount of credit, too.

The luck of the whistle

MONTREAL, QC - JUNE 30:  Julie Johnston #19 of the United States fouls Alexandra Popp #18 of Germany in the box and is called for a penalty in the second half in the FIFA Women's World Cup 2015 Semi-Final Match at Olympic Stadium on June 30, 2015 in Montreal, Canada.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)Getty Images

MONTREAL, QC - JUNE 30: Julie Johnston #19 of the United States fouls Alexandra Popp #18 of Germany in the box and is called for a penalty in the second half in the FIFA Women's World Cup 2015 Semi-Final Match at Olympic Stadium on June 30, 2015 in Montreal, Canada. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

It started in the 59th minute when central defender Julie Johnston got caught on the wrong side of German attacker Alexandra Popp and took her down in the box – a stonewall penalty. Referee Teodora Albon correctly pointed to the spot, but despite the fact that Popp was in alone on goal, the referee opted not to show Johnston a red card. There wasn’t much justification for the ref’s decision, but her opinion was the only one that mattered.

If getting to play 11-on-11 for the final half hour wasn’t lucky enough, the Americans got another break right after – German striker Célia Śaśic, three for three on penalties to that point in the tournament, missed the spot kick. The best striker in the tournament and the World Cup’s top scorer pulled her shot well wide of the post, not even forcing a save from Solo.

Albon had already done her part to help the U.S., but in the 68th minute, she decided to give the Americans another gift when Morgan was taken down at the edge of the German penalty box. Again, the referee got the foul call right, but it was clearly not a penalty. That didn’t stop the referee from pointing to the spot, though. Unlike Śaśic, Lloyd stepped up and buried her penalty.

Fortune plus execution

in the FIFA Women's World Cup 2015 Semi-Final Match at Olympic Stadium on June 30, 2015 in Montreal, Canada.Getty Images

in the FIFA Women's World Cup 2015 Semi-Final Match at Olympic Stadium on June 30, 2015 in Montreal, Canada.

With the lack of a red card, the missed penalty and the goal from a penalty that never should have been given, the U.S. had already been given more breaks than it could have expected. But even that ignores the significant fortune that went its way before the match even started.

Down a goal (and probably even before Lloyd tallied), Germany would have turned to Dzsenifer Marozsán. The spectacular player might be the best midfielder that the Germans, or any team in the world, has to offer. But she suffered an ankle injury in the quarterfinals and was severely limited in the match. She eventually came off the bench, but spent most of her time limping around the field.

Eventually, O’Hara would find the back of the net. Not too long after, the referee would blow for full time and the U.S. had its spot in a second straight World Cup final. If it wasn’t for the way it played out of the gate and the pressure it put Germany under, the U.S. would never have been in position to take advantage of its considerable second half luck. But they did get that healthy bit of fortune, and if there’s any doubt that the U.S. had the help of the soccer gods, all it takes is a look at one, two of five instances to make it clear that the Americans got plenty of help.

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