USA’s backbone

It's not the star power up front or great coaching tactics that has the USWNT in position to win the World Cup. Instead, it's the backline.

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – This destination was always the one the United States women’s national team planned on, but the journey to here has been much different than expected.

On Sunday, the U.S. plays Japan in the 2015 Women’s World Cup final, a rematch of the 2011 final which Japan won in penalty kicks.

The Americans’ presence in Sunday’s final is nothing extraordinary by their lofty expectations; they have never finished worse than third at any of the previous six World Cups. But getting back to this final is actually a mild surprise based on the way the team was playing in the buildup to the World Cup.

Julie Johnston is the story of the tournament and one of the most miraculous, meteoric rises in history. Nine months ago, she had just been cut from the United States’ World Cup qualifying roster. She wasn’t as fit as she needed to be and she wasn’t mentally prepared for the international level, she said recently. “At moments, I didn’t believe in myself as strongly as some others, including Jill,” Johnston said. But the 23-year-old center back upped her training and waited for her turn, which came in March due to injuries to longtime captain Christie Rampone and fellow defender Whitney Engen. She has been so spectacular alongside center back Becky Sauerbrunn that Rampone never managed to earn back her spot

“Opportunity presented itself with some injuries, so now she’s getting started in big games,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. “And she’s risen to the level.”

Johnston entered this tournament having played only 12 matches for the United States, but now she is one of eight finalists for the Golden Ball, given to the best player at the World Cup. Sauerbrunn and Johnston have shown over the course of six games at this tournament that they are currently the best center back pairing in the world.

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Defense wasn’t expected to be what would carry this U.S. team through the World Cup – not on a team with Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan and the depth that is so often spoken of. Defense, however, has been the difference. The U.S. hasn’t given up a goal in 513 minutes – the second-longest streak in Women’s World Cup history – and it isn’t because goalkeeper Hope Solo has been forced to bail out her team. The back four has clamped down on opposing teams, giving up only one goal in the opening half-hour of the tournament.

The United States’ defense wasn’t an overnight success, but it was an expedited process that only saw the unit come together over the past two months and after growing pains in the spring. The Americans lost to Brazil in December, a couple weeks after losing their world No. 1 ranking for the first time in almost seven years. They got outclassed by a spectacular France team in February, drew with lowly Iceland in March and looked less than convincing against inferior opponents in May. They didn’t look like a team that was about to march to a World Cup final, especially knowing that either Germany or France would likely stand in the way in the semifinals.

And then everything started to click at the World Cup. Sauerbrunn assumed the leadership role. Johnston began playing beyond her years. Ali Kreiger and Meghan Klingenberg clamped down the flanks.

“I think that as a unit, it takes a little bit of time to jell,” Sauerbrunn said. “You’re not four individuals back there, your unit – it really depends on everyone’s level of comfort and chemistry around them, so I think that we finally found the right chemistry and the right people. And it also takes time. We needed to play teams like France and lose to be able to see where our weak spots were and to work on it, and I think with all the results, we’ve gotten better and better, especially with the losses, because you learn the most from that.”

Finding success this quickly – together as a unit and individually for Johnston – on this big of a stage is staggering.

Sauerbrunn only played in one World Cup match prior to this tournament, despite turning 30 on the first day of the competition. Her being snubbed from the Golden Ball aside, she’s been the United States’ best and most consistent player at this World Cup.

MORE: Johnston hails team’s resilience, togetherness after reaching World Cup Final

“In terms of her performance, I’m not going to single people out, but I think she’s been a major, major reason why we’ve been so steady at the back and so good at cutting things off,” Ellis said.

Johnston is the U.S. defender singled out by FIFA for the Golden Ball, but Sauerbrunn has been the glue to the team’s shutout streak. The intricacies of her skillset often go unnoticed due to how subtle and easy she makes things look. Sauerbrunn plays a cerebral game, positioning herself perfectly so that she doesn’t have to be reactionary.

“I know that I’m not the fastest, or the strongest, or the best in the air,” she said. “So from a very early age I had to be positionally sound or I was going to get beat. So you just kind of learn as you go and luckily I’ve had amazing coaches like [former U-19 U.S. soccer coach] Mark Krikorian and [Steve] Swanson, who really emphasized positioning on defense.”

Those who are just starting to pay attention on Sunday – with the U.S. now one win from their first World Cup title since 1999 – will see the headlines about Wambach’s last World Cup and Carli Lloyd’s three goals in the last three games after coming alive thanks to a formation change. Many U.S. fans would have expected the United States to make the Women’s World Cup final thanks to all the star power possessed.

The defense has been the one constant for the United States at this World Cup. Ellis tried all five of her forwards at some point. The midfield was poor to start the tournament before coming alive in the quarterfinal and semifinal following tactical changes. Wambach’s role has been reduced over the past two games. Morgan didn’t play for two months due to injury heading into this World Cup. Ellis’ tactical decisions were constantly under fire.

To say that there were objective doubts about this team heading into and even early in the tournament would be an understatement.

So the quick development of the partnership between Johnston and Sauerbrunn to become the United States’ most important players is the big reason that the U.S. is in position to win the World Cup. On Tuesday, Johnston called Sauerbrunn her “backbone.” Both players are exactly that for the United States, even if that wasn’t necessarily the planned path to this destination.