Soccer matches are 90 minutes long, and most of the time the ball is nowhere near a goal and 18 of the 22 players on the pitch are walking. But there are stretches—two minutes here, two seconds there—in which the players do unimaginable things with the ball and work with their teammates in a way that suggests they share a single brain, and they seem more like wizards or artists or seers than athletes.
The USWNT’s 5-2 victory over Japan was beautiful at times—Carli Lloyd’s inventive 60-yard lob to make it 4-0 comes to mind—but this wasn’t the Beautiful Game, this was the Beautiful Smash and Grab. The Beautiful Mugging. The Beautiful Hijacking. This wasn’t a soccer match, this was a goddamn street fight and the United States came out and jabbed Japan in the eye, smashed Japan in the throat, and broke Japan’s kneecaps, all this in the first 16 minutes, after not scoring a single goal in the first half since the opening match against Australia.
In a Round of 16 victory over Colombia, starters Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday picked up yellow cards, forcing them to miss the quarterfinal match against China. During World Cup qualification and the early stages of the tournament, the USWNT game plan seemed to be a solid defense, Abby Wambach, and a direct style of play. Forced to change tactics in Rapinoe and Holiday’s absence, manager Jill Ellis stumbled upon a style of play that worked well against the Chinese, soundly beat the Germans, and finally reached its final form in a torrid display against the Japanese.
Against Japan, the USWNT continued the high pressure that directly led to the two goals against Germany. While Japan didn’t often turn it over deep in their own half, instead of building from the back they were forced to just boot the ball as far as they could, returning it to the Americans to attack and attack again. In the first five minutes this led to a couple of corner kicks, and helped along by some dogshit Japanese defending—seriously Japan defended set pieces terribly all game long—the USWNT went up 2-0.
Carli Lloyd had been playing as sort of a deeper lying double-pivot with Holiday before her suspension, which mostly served to neuter both her and Holiday’s attacking instincts. But for the final three games of the tournament she played much closer to goal, mostly as a withdrawn forward. The goal that gave Lloyd her hat trick, the goal that put the USWNT up 4-0, couldn’t have been scored by her earlier in the tournament because she would’ve been receiving the ball 20 yards deeper and with six Japanese players between her and the goal:
Sixteen minutes in, the game was effectively over. Team just don’t come back from four goals down (unless it’s against Arsenal). The USWNT let their foot off the gas a bit because it’s impossible to press for 90 minutes, and Japan dropped the dreadful Azusa Iwashimizu after just 33 minutes and brought on aging hero Homare Sawa, somehow playing in her sixth World Cup. They managed to right the ship, and it’s a credit to how good crisp and incisive their passing is that Japan was able to penetrate the vaunted United States defense—that had only let in a single goal in the tournament—and score twice, but the goals only served to soften a decisive loss.
After that match against Colombia, my colleague Billy wrote that the United States needed to evolve or die, and evolve they did. For all the criticism Jill Ellis received for her tactics prior to the quarterfinals, she deserves praise for eventually finding a system that allowed her best players to succeed, even if her hand was forced by a dumb rule that sees players miss a game for picking up just two yellow cards. The USWNT had more attacking talent on one 23-woman roster than exists on most continents, and for a glorious 16-minute stretch it was obviously for all the world to see.
It was beautiful.