LYON, France (Reuters) - The United States have had to endure the hardest route to a women’s World Cup final ever, coach Jill Ellis said on Tuesday, but added that her players’ grit and determination had set them apart from the competition.
The defending champions reached their third successive final by overcoming England 2-1 in a hard-fought game in Lyon which included the European side having a goal ruled out for offside and U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher saving a penalty.
It was the third consecutive match the U.S. had won 2-1, using impressive game-management skills to see out the contests and frustrate their opponents where in previous tournaments they had become used to simply blowing teams away.
The gritty performances have been a far cry from the opening matches where the Americans thrashed Thailand 13-0 and put three goals past Chile without reply. Ellis said that in the knockout rounds her players had been forced to tap into their ingrained tenacity.
“I told the players I think this is the hardest route to a final a team has probably ever taken in terms of level of competition,” Ellis told a news conference.
“But they find a way and I attribute that to the mental strength of the culture, the environment, the history of the nation and I think they are vetted in pressure and you saw that tonight.
“It’s resolve and it’s fantastic — games where you have to have that... it’s the World Cup finals, it’s not Sunday soccer. As a coach you rely on players having that mental capacity and that’s through creating a coaching environment that makes it as competitive.”
Part of what has set the United States apart in the past has been their deep well of talent. The nation has dominated women’s soccer, winning a record three World Cups and four Olympic gold medals.
They were without key winger Megan Rapinoe on Tuesday, who scored four goals in the previous two matches but suffered a hamstring strain, but Christen Press took her place seamlessly by scoring the opener and played a part in setting up Alex Morgan’s winner.
“Pressy’s been fantastic. I’ve said this, I have multiple stars in multiple positions,” Ellis said.
“Everybody gets the same attention from the coaching staff because we say to them ‘when that moment comes, play like you’re going to make the difference’ and Pressy sure did that.”
Standing in the way of the U.S. winning a fourth World Cup out of eight editions of the tournament will either be Sweden or the Netherlands who face each other on Wednesday for a place in Sunday’s final.
Ellis was looking forward to having a night off to watch what she said would be another great occasion.
“The Netherlands have had a great tournament, obviously coming off the Euros, tremendous performances by them. Sweden we obviously saw in the group stage and we know how good they are. I think that’s going to be an epic match tomorrow.”
Reporting by Christian Radnedge; editing by Clare Fallon