HIGHLIGHTS: USA Women Beat Australia, Earn FINA Championship Berth

The USA women were the first to make it to the final of the 2015 World Championships, their 5th in team history, after beating Australia 8-6 in the semifinal on Wednesday. A balanced attack and strong team defence, established more and more as the game went on, forced a turnaround, domination of the score in the second half and an eventual victory over the Aussie Stingers.

The game got off to an expected balanced start, despite Australia drawing multiple kickouts but only scoring once on extra man as Keesje Gofers converted. On the other end centre forward Kami Craig made quick work to score and after Maddie Musselman did later in the quarter, the teams were tied 2-2 at quarter time. It continued in the second period as Nicola Zagame tipped in a nice man-up on the post for Australia while USA had trouble coping with the Stingers’ left-side zone defence. The Americans however tried to compensate by swimming their counter attacks even more fiercely and had success by drawing an exclusion with Maggie Steffens scoring from the right wing to tie the score 3-3 halfway through the second session.

And they even got up on another counter as Mackenzie Fischer drove down the left wing and finished for Team USA. Austrlia’s response didn’t last long as Ash Southern got the to the centre-forward position and swung one at USA goalie Ashleigh Johnson for the equaliser. As back and forth as the game went it was Australia who got up in front again as Glencora McGhie got too much space from the USA zone defence and hit from outside with over 2 minutes remaining in the first half.

The shots for USA weren’t falling in the final minutes hitting the post ones and missing a couple of others while the American defence starting to work better leaving the Australia centre forwards without a pass to receive while outside shots weren’t much taken by the Aussies before USA ran a set play in the final seconds to see Rachel Fattal score at the buzzer to level the score at 5-5 at half-time.

The third period saw an improvement of both teams’ organisation. Goals became harder to score and it was Maggie Steffens who broke the deadlock by driving and receiving the pass for the goal to get her team leading 6-5 halfway through the third quarter. The Aussies meanwhile kept having trouble even getting decent shots against the active American defence. A man-up finally drawn after 5 minutes led to a turnover as Rowie Webster’s possession was stripped by the returning USA player onto the tank. A second extra-man was missed by Ash Southern whose shot smothered the defensive blocks but USA couldn’t convert in the following possession on man-up which led to a turnover, also due to fierce defending.

With both teams unable to score in the final minutes, the teams went into the final 8 minutes with a 6-5 score in favour of USA. That period was kicked off beautifully by Rachel Fattal who fired home a long-range shot from the left side in the very first possession as Team USA took a 7-5 lead. An important advantage as the minutes ticked away with Australia kept having trouble coming close to the goal of goalie Johnson. Instead the shots from outside, often well-deflected, were an easy target to save. A big blow followed with under 3 minutes remaining as Melissa Seidemann fired a shot from way out at the end of the 30 seconds attacking time which went in via Aussie goalie Lea Yanitsas as USA now led 8-5.

Australia head coach Greg McFadden took a timeout and run a set play that got the Aussies a penalty shot but Zoe Arancini’s attempt was saved by Johnson. The American goalkeeper continued her impressive play in the following posession denying Gemma Beadsworth scoring from the left side. Arancini eventually got Johnson to capatalise though scoring on man-up from the left wing after quick passing. Time ran out on the Aussies who saw USA playing out the clock. And when standout Johnson saved a late Ash Southern attempt, the victory and finals berth for USA was secured.

The next semifinal up saw Italy taking on the Netherlands. In the first quarter the balance of the match became quickly visible. The Dutch ran a defence that proved a hard nut to crack for Italy who only saw a handful of extra-man situations being the best possibilities to score but were denied all times by young debuting Netherlands goalkeeper Laura Aarts. On the other end the Netherlands came out swimming fast counter attacks and through two opportunities scored twice as Sabrina van der Sloot and Maud Megens got on the scoreboard for the 0-2 lead at quarter time. The offensive problems continued in the second period for Italy. The active Dutch zone defence did let some room in the ‘2nd line’ but several Italian shots from outside were either saved by goalie Aarts, hit the crossbar or simply missed target.

On offence The Netherlands ran in to the typically well-organised Italian defence. It took 5 minutes to break the deadlock. Maud Megens who finished a man-up after she had drawn it herself. And Megens continued her stellar play by scoring a back-handed centre-forward goal after a quick drive with over a minute remaining in the first half. Italy finally came on the board with half a minute to be played in the 2nd quarter as Federica Radicchi saw a deflected shot from outside getting past Aarts. But there was Megens again.

The standout of the first half didn’t hesitate on a free throw and blew it past Italian goalkeeper Gorlero, her third goal already, for the 1-5 score at half-time, as the Netherlands looked well underway to writing history as a possible finals berth would be the first at world championships since the 1998 edition in Perth where the Dutch finished 2nd.

The scenario looked to be continued in the third period. Both defences were well established and made life hard for the opposing teams. Italy got two more man-ups but were denied by the active Dutch defence again. The deadlock this time lasted for almost the entire quarter before Arianna Garibotti scored from outside for the 2-5 score. But a further comeback was denied.

A minute later, Garibotti saw her shot flying past the Dutch goal to let down another chance for the Setterosa on man-up. With the score at 2-5 before the final period started, Italy’s chances of an upset got smaller and smaller. A surge could be expected of the Fabio Conti coached side and came in the final period. The Italian women started to swim their counter attacks faster, played more physical and tightened the defence, for as much as possible. It led to an early goal by Ferica Radicchi who blasted an outside shot as Italy came back to 3-5 with 6 minutes to play.

The Netherlands struggled on the other end on set plays. A turnaround could be in the making and certainly got more form a minute later as an exclusion for Yasemin Smit was quickly finished off by Elisa Querilo as now the deficit for the Italians was just a single goal: 4-5 with over 3 minutes to go. What was occuring got confirmed now as the momentum was in Italy’s hands and got rewarded by Rosaria Aiello after a wasted man-up for Italy scoring a centre-forward goal to tie the teams at 5-5.

A thrilling finish was up at hand as just 2.30 minutes were to be played. Either teams got their shots to glory but several outside shots could be saved or flew past the goals. Italy got the best oppertunity drawing an extra man but could not score either as the score was leveled 5-5 at the end of regulation so a shootout was to decide this thriller.

The shootout was nail-biting on itself. Both Italian goalies rose to the occasion as shots by Dagmar Genee and standout Maud Megens were saved. But as young Dutch goalkeeper Laura Aarts, in just her 3nd major international start, came up big as well by denying Emmolo and Radicchi the scoring. Aarts went on to even decide the shootout when the sudden-death phase entered. Here Lieke Klaassen and Sabrina van der Sloot hit for the Netherlands, and captain Di Mario did for Italy before lefty Emmolo had to take another shot. And again Aarts saved it, ending the series and winning the match for the Dutch side who advances to the final for the first time since 1998, playing USA on Friday.