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By ESPN Staff
Sep 22, 2007

Obsorne-Boxx midfield combination the key to the win

TIANJIN, China -- Something old and something new guided the United States through to the semifinals of a World Cup for the fifth time in five appearances.

After a tense first half, Abby Wambach and Kristine Lilly broke a scoreless tie when Wambach headed home a Lilly corner kick in the 48th minute. And when Shannon Boxx, freed to roam forward by her new midfield partnership with Leslie Osborne, followed up with a low liner into the corner of the net 10 minutes later, the United States was well on its way to a 3-0 win against England and a semifinal date with either Brazil or upstart Australia (Sept. 27, 8 a.m. ET, ESPN2).

It was no coincidence that a goal off a set piece settled the U.S. offense after a first half long on possession but short on purpose. After exiting the 2003 World Cup with a semifinal loss against Germany, the United States faced criticism that its offense under former coach April Heinrichs relied too heavily on set pieces. But Greg Ryan never bought into that claim, stressing for much of the past two years that a sizable percentage of World Cup goals always have been, and likely always will be, scored off set pieces.

So although his team showed an ability to create goals in the run of play in winning its group, the inability to produce even one goal off set pieces was a source of frustration.

"We were getting close, but our set pieces, we weren't getting the balls that we wanted," Cat Whitehill said of the first three games. "I don't know if it had something to do with the slippery conditions we were playing in, but we weren't getting it in the right places. And today, fortunately we did. We got it to Abby's head -- that's kind of the right place to go. That's the key, when you have a target like her, you want to find it. And we did, and I think that really broke England's back."

Whether breaking a team's metaphorical back or various other literal body parts, defending against Wambach's size and strength in the box takes a toll on opponents.

"At this level, if you're not on your guard, players like Abby will punish you," England coach Hope Powell said, conceding that Wambach's unintentional first-half elbow to Faye White's nose left her best and biggest defender dazed in the second half.

But Wambach and Lilly, long the workhorses for the United States, weren't alone.

For the third time in four games, but from the outset of a game for the first time, Boxx and Osborne shared the midfield with Lori Chalupny. From a distance, pairing two of the world's best defensive midfielders might have seemed like an odd move for a team under fire for offensive imprecision in winning its group, but both players possess offensive skills often kept under wraps by their solo defensive duties.

Right from the outset, playing an England clearance back into the offensive end with a diving header in the opening minute, Osborne gave the United States a physical and aggressive presence in the midfield. Where Carli Lloyd was largely unable to put pressure on defenses when her trademark hard shot and creativity went missing in the opening round, Osborne energized the attack simply by maintaining possession.

All that on top of marking one of the world's best players.

"I thought Leslie just had a fantastic game, both defensively and helping us possess and win balls in the air," Greg Ryan said. "We play a zone in the midfield, but today we changed it a little bit and had her follow Kelly Smith when Kelly was in position to receive the ball. And I thought Leslie did a great job of just keeping Kelly as quiet as you can keep a very talented player like Kelly Smith."

A player who 18 months ago wasn't a lock to make the final roster has become the kind of stabilizing presence even World Cup veterans appreciate.

"She [Osborne] calms us down," Wambach said. "She is a young player, but she gives us a calming presence. [She] talks to Boxxie, she gets us organized in the midfield, more so than I think maybe we've ever been in the past couple of years."

And Boxx, who looked in the opener like a player still finding her footing after coming back this summer from a series of injuries that kept her out for almost a year, played the kind of all-around game that earned her a third-place finish in the balloting for FIFA Player of the Year in 2005. In addition to her pulling a low liner past England keeper Rachel Brown for the second goal, it was Boxx's work in the trenches off a corner kick that earned her team the corner kick Wambach and Lilly converted for the first goal.

"[Osborne has] made me go forward," Boxx said. "Her job was mainly to be on the defensive side today, and I think she did a great job with her role. It allowed me to be a little bit more free to get forward, and I got a goal."

On a team that seemed to be searching for its rhythm in the opening round, and even through stretches of the game against England, the two midfielders are clicking.

"Something just clicks with us," Osborne explained. "Our communication, we feel comfortable with each other, we read off of each other really well. We played offense tonight and defense. We're not just two defensive midfielders. We can actually keep the ball for us, possess, and we're not going to let anything past us."

For at least a half against England, that chemistry was contagious.

Player ratings (scale of 1-10)

Hope Solo, 7 -- Despite the final score, she was under pressure on a number of occasions, especially early and late. She looked a little uncertain on a couple of set pieces but held her own overall.

Abby Wambach, 8 -- She missed a couple of chances in the first half, including one point-blank shot that went over the bar. However, she was right where she needed to be when it mattered most.

Kristine Lilly, 8 -- The captain's best game of the tournament. Cliché though it might be, not every star would have kept running through Whitehill's long free kick that Brown mishandled on the final goal.

Heather O'Reilly, 6 -- Gets credit for earning several corners with her tireless work rate and tracked back well to help slow England in the midfield.

Lori Chalupny, 5 -- Not her best game of the tournament, although she has set herself a high standard to live up to.

Leslie Osborne, 10 -- Did everything necessary to justify her place in the starting lineup, slowing Smith as much as possible on the defensive end and winning balls in the attack.

Shannon Boxx, 9 -- Started strong on the defensive end, then pushed forward successfully in the second half, scoring one goal and helping set up another. Her best game this year.

Christie Rampone, 6 -- Along with Kate Markgraf, she struggled at times to contain England's push down the left side in the first half, especially against the speed of Eniola Aluko. But she was solid in the second half.

Kate Markgraf, 7 -- Had her plate full with England attacking down the flanks early, but held her own and finished the game well against England's frantic final pushes.

Cat Whitehill, 7 -- Anchored the back line well yet again, making all the plays she needed to on the rare occasions England got past Osborne and Boxx.

Stephanie Lopez, 6 -- She looked a little tentative in making some challenges, but also displayed the soft touch and strong leg on long balls that makes her such a dangerous weapon pushing forward.

Subs

Carli Lloyd, 6 -- Her first touch, a nice through ball to Lilly at full sprint, and some of her subsequent runs marked perhaps her most aggressive play of the tournament. Whether she continues to provide a spark off the bench or re-enters the starting lineup, she still can make a significant impact on the American attack.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.