Today's United States vs. Germany is the semifinal everyone had more or less expected, and one FIFA explicitly set up when organizing the tournament. Of course, that doesn't mean the road here has been entirely smooth. The US struggled for an hour in their opening game, and their best players have mostly been defenders. Germany, meanwhile, underwhelmed against Norway and probably should have lost to France, who wasted too many good chances and fell on penalties in the end.
Nevertheless, it seems safe to say that these are two of the top four teams on the planet, and that this would be a suitable final. For Germany, it's just another day at the office: Their game against France was described the same way, and in all likelihood the winner of this match plays Japan. If Germany goes on to lift the trophy, no one will be able to claim they had it easy.
The Americans, on the other hand, have been handed a stroll in the knockout round. Sure, their group was stronger, but Sweden was much worse than expected and Nigeria couldn't truly throw things into chaos by getting a win. The US has only had to dig deep once in their five games, and it seems safe to say that Germany is more battle-tested at this point.
Key player: Hope Solo
Germany has scored 20 goals in this tournament. Sure, 10 came in their opening game against a hopelessly outmatched Ivory Coast, but that still means 10 goals in 4 games. The top two goalscorers in the competition - Celia Sasic (6 goals) and Anja Mittag (5) - are both playing for the Germans. No other player on any team even has 4 goals.
This is a product of Germany's attacking play, which is sparked by the intelligence of their central midfield and the movement of their attacking four. The Germans can be tough to keep track of due to the number of moving parts to deal with, and the end result is usually a lot of shots on goal. This is a team that can score a wide range of goals from a wide range of players. The same Swedish team that frustrated the USWNT for 90 minutes were torn apart, for example, losing 4-1.
Enter Solo, who hasn't been truly tested since the early minutes of the opener against Australia. She made potentially tournament-changing saves in the first 10 minutes of that game, when the doubts about the US tactics didn't have 4 wins and a draw from 5 games around as a counter-argument. Barring a highly unlikely sequence of events, she's going to be tested for longer periods of tonight's game than she has since arriving in Canada. If the US is going to win this game, Solo is probably going to have to be the star of the show.
Key question: What happens when the USWNT can't win because they're just the far more talented team?
The Americans are not making the most out of their talent because their tactical approach doesn't really make much sense. The central midfield leaves holes; right midfield has been played by several people who are not right midfielders; there are too many attack-minded players in the midfield as a whole, creating an imbalance that actually makes it more difficult for them to attack with any fluency. We should also not forget the team's tendency to play short and slow before eventually giving up and going long against a prepared defense.
None of this has derailed the US because they've been head and shoulders above their opponent in terms of talent. The US roster is flat-out better than anyone they've faced. The fact that Australia had the US in trouble, or that Sweden held them to few chances, helps tell the story about what bad tactical approaches can do to strong teams. This team is too good to be relying only on defending and flashes of skill from their best players.
That ends tonight, because Germany's talent level is very similar to the USWNT's, and their approach to the game makes sense tactically. Players are in positions they actually feel comfortable in. There are patterns of play rather than just a vague effort to get the ball to Rapinoe and hope she does something good. I don't actually think Germany is better on paper, but they are much more coherently assembled and organized. You can be sure they'll have a plan specifically set up to take advantage of the chaotic US midfield.
What we need to see for the US is a response to these very obvious points. Against China, the US plan made more sense in part because there was a true wide midfielder on the right and defensive midfield was played by someone who could adapt to the job. The result was better, smarter soccer, and Jill Ellis really needs to have learned something from that game. Otherwise, it's going to take many more top-shelf bits of skill to advance to the final. Winning teams don't gamble their fate on the hope that spectacular goals keep coming.
Match date/time: Tuesday 6/30, 7:00pm Eastern
Venue: Stade Olympique (Montreal)
TV: Fox (English), NBC Universo (Spanish)
Online: Fox Soccer 2Go (English, requires subscription), NBC Universo Now (Spanish), NBC Deportes En Vivo Extra (Spanish)
Check back in two hours for our gamethread.