The United States scored two on Germany. Then the women added a sensational five against Japan. In the final two matches of its World Cup, which ended with a record third title, the U.S. scored a remarkable seven goals.
There was a theme in those two matches, along with the quarterfinals.
The breakdown was as follows:
Eight goals from midfielders.
Zero goals from forwards.
That breakdown isn’t a surprise either. Well, the fact that the U.S., which struggled in the attack for much of the tournament, could score that many goals was a surprise, but not that the midfield did all the work.
Despite several high-profile strikers like Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux, the American forwards were anywhere from terrible to disappointing in the tournament. They missed chance after chance and none of them finished with more than one goal. So by the knockout stage, no one was expecting greatness from them anymore. In the end, Morgan was the unquestioned starter despite having spent the bulk of the last two years injured and visibly rusty. And it didn’t matter.
The Americans’ considerable trouble up top didn’t stop them from winning the World Cup because the midfield picked up the slack – and then some. Carli Lloyd finished as the tournament’s joint-top scorer with six goals, including a hat trick after just 16 minutes in the final. Lauren Holiday and Tobin Heath, both midfielders, added the other two goals. Lloyd and Kelley O’Hara sent the U.S. to the final and even in the quarterfinals, Lloyd had the only tally. Going back to the start of the tournament, Megan Rapinoe found the back of the net twice in the opener to get the team off to a winning start.
Morgan Brian’s insertion into the starting lineup helped enable much of that. Her ability to play as a defensive midfielder, even if unnaturally so, freed up Lloyd and the rest of the crew. With one back, they could get forward, and get forward they did.
Everywhere you looked, an American midfielder was scoring. They were magnificent, and amazingly so.
The midfield and its lack of cohesion, not to mention balance, was supposed to be this team’s downfall. The U.S. couldn’t figure out how to use Lloyd to begin with, Holiday was out of form, Rapinoe was forced to take on too much of a creative role and nobody knew who would start on one wing. It was a mix-and-match group, none of which looked appealing. The strikers were going to have to make something out of nothing, out-running opposing defenders to long balls or winning the ball in the air.
The forwards did that. They out-ran defenders and got chances, but missed them. Their headers went wide of the net and, by the time they got to the semifinals, Jill Ellis had given up on using two of them. She’d rather play five midfielders. It wasn’t just to win the battle in the center of the park – it was to enable the midfielders to get forward because they were most likely to score. And score they did.
Lloyd. Holiday. Rapinoe. Heath. The vaunted U.S. goalscorers, even if they were midfielders.
Scratch that, the vaunted world champion U.S. goalscorers.