OTTAWA, Ontario - Throughout this World Cup, United States coach Jill Ellis has preached the value of improving performances over the course of the tournament.
All of a sudden, that just might be happening.
Ellis' team delivered its most fluid and composed performance yet in Canada with a 1-0 win over China on Friday night in the quarterfinals at Landsdowne Stadium. Delran native Carli Lloyd celebrated her 200th appearance for the national team with the winning goal.
Lloyd is no stranger to coming up with big goals in key moments.
"That's when I know I've got to roll the sleeves up. Once the knockout rounds come, this is it, and it's a lot of fun," the captain said.
The game was the first where the Americans were able to put together a complete match.
"We wanted to come out fast and strong out of the gate and put them under pressure," Lloyd said. "That was the first game all tournament when we really put them on their . . . heels."
Now it's off to Montreal for the game that the world has been waiting for: a semifinal clash with world No. 1 Germany on Tuesday.
"This game was huge for our confidence going into that semifinal match," Lloyd said. "We want to make other teams nervous and not vice versa."
Lloyd's teammates definitely did that on Friday - and the biggest reasons were changes that Ellis made to the starting lineup.
The scouting report on the Chinese showed that they deploy a compact bank of four defenders to jam creators in the center of the field. So Ellis loaded up the flanks, especially in midfield. Tobin Heath shifted to the left to replace the suspended Megan Rapinoe and Kelley O'Hara came in on the right. Ellis also put an emphasis on speed up top, benching Abby Wambach for Amy Rodriguez.
Those moves paid off. O'Hara found lots of space to work in, and Rodriguez's hustle brought an added bonus of improving the team's high-pressure defense.
The United States scored more against Australia and Colombia, but against China it was more consistent. The attack was fluid and players at both ends of the field were positionally solid.
The first half alone yielded 11 shots, of which at least two could have been easily finished: a botched chip in the first minute by Rodriguez and a 26th-minute attempt by Julie Johnston that was blocked on the goal line.
In the 37th, Lloyd added to the onslaught with a battering ram of a free kick that Chinese goalkeeper Wang Fei could only parry aside.
But when the halftime whistle blew, there were still zeros on the scoreboard. That left the jam-packed crowd of 24,141 noticeably unsettled.
Wambach, however, was not fazed. As the global television audience heard loud and clear, she sent her teammates onto the field for the second half with a forceful declaration: "First 10 minutes, we score a [expletive] goal!"
Her prediction proved true. In the 51st minute, Johnston launched a long pass that went straight onto Lloyd's head, and from there straight into China's net.
Ali Krieger came within inches of doubling the lead in the 73d, but her long-range blast struck the crossbar.
When the U.S. team last took a 1-0 lead into the game's closing minutes, Ellis chose to sit on it. This time, she went for the jugular, withdrawing Alex Morgan for Heather O'Reilly with nine minutes to go. Moments later - and conveniently, just as the Americans won a corner kick - Wambach replaced Rodriguez. The corner came to nothing, but the message of intent was clear.
"I think it's a really good step heading into the semis to have this feeling," Ellis said. "This team steps up in big moments, and they knew they needed to step up."
That they did. Now it's time for Ellis' team to take the biggest step yet.