OTTAWA, Ontario >> Carli Lloyd sprinted toward the right sideline, her face contorted in joy, before she aimed a flying kick at the corner flag. Her teammates, giving chase close behind, mobbed her in celebration, forming a jubilant tornado of white jerseys and neon green socks.
Fifty minutes had gone by in the United States’ World Cup quarterfinal match against China on Friday when Lloyd took flight near the penalty spot and drilled a powerful header into the lower corner of the goal to break a scoreless tie.
It was a cathartic moment, a turning point in the game. Before Lloyd’s goal, the Americans had sent 12 fruitless shots and a continual series of unrewarded attacks toward China’s goal, their frustration mounting with each foray. But Lloyd’s tally, from Julie Johnston’s pinpoint cross, punctured the tension and propelled the United States to a 1-0 victory.
The Americans will hope the goal was a turning point in their tournament as well.
In the days before the game, Lloyd, 32, had been respectfully critical of herself and her teammates, saying they were subpar, that they needed to enliven their stagnant offense, that she herself needed to do much more. Given more freedom to roam the artificial turf in her 200th appearance for the national team, Lloyd took the initiative, scoring her 65th international goal in a game that the United States dominated from start to finish.
“It was what we needed,” Lloyd said. “I think we’re going to be flying next game.”
The American women have reached the semifinals of every World Cup since the tournament began in 1991. They are set to meet Germany on Tuesday in Montreal, where the Germans defeated France earlier Friday in a scintillating match that was decided by a penalty kick shootout.
It will be, by far, the United States’ loftiest challenge of the tournament. Coach Jill Ellis said she hoped the good feelings from Friday would carry over.
“We talked about trying to grow in this tournament, and today was a big, big step for that in terms of just the energy and confidence we had, the way we moved the ball,” Ellis said. “The players were really excited; I could just tell in them. Their chests are high, and they’re ready to go, and I think it’s a really good step heading into the semis to have this feeling.”
The atmosphere and the stakes seemed to invigorate the team. On a cool, clear night, the steep stands of TD Place Stadium rippled with U.S. supporters, who bobbed and chanted as the game got under way.
It was the first World Cup game between the teams since the final in 1999, when the United States won the trophy in a penalty-kick shootout. At a news conference Thursday, coaches and players from the two teams were asked about that match — whether that result was on their minds, if it fueled any competition between the current squads. The answer, for the most part, was no.
In truth, the United States has dominated this matchup for more than a decade, going unbeaten against China, the No. 16 team in the world, in the teams’ previous 23 matches dating to 2003. It was more of the same Friday, when the United States held 56 percent of the possession and outshot China, 17-6.
Ellis made effective changes to her lineup and tactics, some forced and some of her own volition. Two starting midfielders, Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday, served one-game suspensions for yellow-card accumulation. Into their places stepped Kelly O’Hara, who ran along the right flank, and Morgan Brian, who served a metronomic role in the middle of the field, swinging passes left and right, letting her teammates orbit her.
The primary beneficiary of Brian’s steady play was Lloyd, who was given the green light to venture forward. Asked what the difference was after four lackluster performances, Lloyd beamed and said, “Freedom.”
Ellis also benched forward Abby Wambach, the leading goal scorer in international soccer, in favor of Amy Rodriguez — whom Ellis had directed to “run between the lines” — and gave the captain’s armband to Lloyd, who became the 10th American woman to play 200 international games.
Missed chances aside, the effects of the changes were apparent from the opening whistle. In the second minute, Rodriguez spun onto a clever pass from Lloyd and found herself alone against goalkeeper Wang Fei — though her attempt to flick the ball with the outside of her shoe sailed comically wide. Before eight minutes had checked off the game clock, Alex Morgan and O’Hara each had put their own hopeful shots toward goal.
Hao Wei, the Chinese coach, said his conservative tactics were to blame for his players’ shortcomings.
“I gave the goal to go to the semifinals, so we didn’t fulfill the goal,” he said through an interpreter. “It’s a pity.”
Though Hao tried to take responsibility, it was unmistakable what the U.S. players did to put their opponents on their heels: In a change from their first four games, they pressed high up the field, dribbling at defenders, showing swagger in possession and making probing runs from varied angles. China did not formulate a credible attack in the first half, while the Americans built one after another.
And on they went, wave after wave, until Lloyd went airborne, catapulting her team to the semifinals.