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3 things we learned as the United States beat China 1-0 to reach the Women's World Cup semifinal

The USWNT got the job done to advance to the semifinal, beating China 1-0 on a Carli Lloyd header.

Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

The United States finally started to look a bit more like the favorites they're supposed to be in this Women's World Cup, using a header from Carli Lloyd in her 200th USWNT cap to beat China, 1-0, and advance to the semifinal.

Things got off to a heart-wrenching start for the United States. Amy Rodriguez, making her first start of the World Cup, was put clear through on goal by a gorgeous defense-splitting pass in just the second minute of the match. Instead of simply side-footing the ball past a helpless Wang Fei to put the USWNT ahead, she tried to lob the ball over China's goalkeeper -- except her finish was all wrong, and the ball went far, far off target.

Maybe it was nerves, maybe the ball took a bounce off the turf she didn't expect or maybe it was just an honest mistake. The result was that Rodriguez made arguably the worst miss of the World Cup so far, robbing the U.S. of what looked like a sure goal early in the match against one of the best defensive sides left in the World Cup. It wasn't the start the USWNT wanted at all, and they had to quickly find a way to put that miss behind them.

The United States dominated possession in a big way, and when China did get the ball and attacked they were stonewalled by the excellent USWNT defense, spurred by Kelley O'Hara's work on the right wing to help shut down the previously dominant Han Peng. But despite practically living in China's half of the pitch, the U.S. struggled to unleash truly dangerous shots. Their best chance came off a series of set pieces just before the half-hour mark, but when Wang Fei was pulled off her line and out of position, the resulting shot from Rodriguez was cleared off the line by a Chinese defender.

The USWNT played better as a whole than they had earlier in the tournament, but some of the same issues continued to plague them in attack -- namely, too much time spent kicking the ball out wide only to see a cross blindly lobbed in. That works against some teams, but it's less effective against the organized defenses the United States have been facing, including China's.

But a moment of magic doesn't care about organized defenses, or about earlier struggles during the match. Lloyd had been having a tough time in possession for much of the match, committing a number of turnovers that gave China the ball in areas of the pitch that put pressure on her teammates. In the 51st minute, however, Lloyd's purpose was realized -- a deep cross from Julie Johnston found her in the box, and despite having a defender on her hip, Lloyd went up and flicked in a gorgeous header that Wang Fei just couldn't get to.

After that, China was pretty much helpless. They couldn't do enough in attack beyond vaguely threaten the U.S. goal, and the U.S. had all the dangerous chances, running at China's defense almost at will. They couldn't find a second goal against their opponents' tight-knit defense, but the overall performance was much more promising than we'd seen in the first four matches from the USWNT in this World Cup.

Now it's on to the semifinal against Germany, arguably the only side left in the Women's World Cup that can match the USWNT for pure talent. The improved performance from the United States is an encouraging sign heading into that huge match, but they will have to kick things up another notch against Nadine Angerer, Celia Sasic and the rest of Germany's star-studded squad.

In the meantime, though, this quarterfinal win over China feels pretty darn good. Take some time to enjoy it.

United States: Hope Solo; Ali Krieger, Julie Johnston, Becky Sauerbrunn, Meghan Klingenberg; Kelley O'Hara (Christen Press 61'), Morgan Brian, Carli Lloyd, Tobin Heath; Amy Rodriguez (Abby Wambach 86'), Alex Morgan (Heather O'Reilly 81')

Goals: Lloyd (51')

China: Wang Fei; Wu Haiyan, Zhao Rong, Li Dongna, Liu Shanshan; Tan Ruyin (Pang Fengyue 58'), Ren Guixin; Wang Lisi, Lou Jiahui (Wang Shuang 35'), Han Peng (Tang Jiali 75'); Wang Shanshan

Goals: None

3 things

1. Morgan Brian made the USWNT midfield so much better

Make no mistake: Lauren Holiday is a great player. That's not up for debate. What she's not, however, is a perfect fit for a two-woman central midfield pairing, especially without a real box-to-box or defensive midfielder next to her. That showed in a big way when she and Lloyd struggled during the United States' first four World Cup matches, leading many to think that her suspension for this game might actually help the U.S.

That actually proved to be true thanks to Morgan Brian. Her energy and comfort in the role helped her shine and let the USWNT play much more fluidly and effectively through midfield, even if Lloyd continued to struggle in possession next to her. Brian was calm and effective in possession, shielded the defense well when China had the ball and was always there when needed to give a defender or attacker an outlet pass. She played her supporting role perfectly, and it let the U.S., as a whole play, much better.

2. Julie Johnston is the United States' best player

Yes, you read that correctly. In a team that includes Megan Rapinoe, Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan, 23-year-old center back Julie Johnston is the best player to pull on a United States shirt. That thought was edging into the minds of fans and neutral observers alike before this match, but after the utterly dominant display she put on against China it's a thought that can no longer be ignored.

Time and again, China tried to surge forward and score a goal against the run of play. Time and again, Johnston stepped up and stopped their attacks cold. She read the game in front of her perfectly and was always in the right place at the right time to make the needed play. Johnston was also a constant threat on set pieces, constantly demanding double- or triple-team marking when she went up. When the ball came her way in the box, she usually beat China's defenders anyway, despite the numbers going against her.

And, oh yeah, she had the assist on the United States' lone goal. That cross was pretty good.

Johnston has been a force in this World Cup, and the U.S. have benefited greatly by her presence despite the doubts many had about her coming in.

3. Carli Lloyd scored on her 200th cap, but she might need to sit in the semifinal

Even with the greater freedom afforded her by the presence of Brian in midfield, Lloyd still struggled for most of the match and at times bordered on being a liability. She had some jaw-droppingly poor giveaways in midfield, and even struggled to make the right pass in the final third, too often a beat slow or simply out of sync with Morgan and Rodriguez.

In fact, there were several times -- especially in the first half -- that it looked as though the USWNT would have had a much, much better chance of scoring if it was Holiday playing in midfield and putting balls into the box rather than Lloyd. She's a valuable veteran presence for this side, and her work on the goal she scored was excellent, but on a whole, Lloyd simply hasn't been anywhere near her best in this World Cup.

For the U.S. to beat Germany and reach the final, a Brian-Holiday midfield might be the better option. With a different formation, Lloyd could still have a place in the side, but it seems doubtful that Jill Ellis will go away from her stock 4-4-2. Unless that unlikely circumstance occurs, the best way Lloyd can help her team win is to join Wambach in coming off the bench.


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