By Steven Goff in Decines-Charpieu, France

An evening that began with intrigue concerning a high-profile absence ended in high drama and full glory for the U.S. national soccer team Tuesday as it defeated England, 2-1, and advanced to the Women’s World Cup final for the third consecutive time.

When it ended, when seven minutes of stoppage time expired and some 20,000 U.S. fans were able to exhale, a mass of red-shirted Americans dashed toward goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher.

The quietest member of a personality-laden squad -- and also the most scrutinized because of her lack of experience in major tournaments -- Naeher had preserved the lead in the 84th minute by smothering Steph Houghton’s penalty kick.

And with that save, plus goals by Christen Press and Alex Morgan, the Americans continued their quest for a fourth World Cup trophy. At this same venue Sunday, they will face the winner of Wednesday’s semifinal between the Netherlands and Sweden.

“We have put so much into this journey together,” Morgan said, “and now we have one more game to close it out.”

The top-ranked U.S. team again did not have an easy time of it, winning by the same score for the third straight knockout game. It did it without Megan Rapinoe, the sensational and controversial forward who was sidelined with what she described as a slight hamstring strain.

She said she expects to be available Sunday.

Before the match, U.S. officials had declined to say why Rapinoe was not playing, injecting some mystery into her absence. Afterward, Coach Jill Ellis said her condition was kept quiet for strategic reasons in case Rapinoe was called upon in extra time and a penalty-kick tiebreaker.

England played with confidence and courage but lost in the semifinals for the second straight World Cup.

“They are the standard-bearer,” England Coach Phil Neville said of the United States. “Eventually we will catch the USA. But at the moment, they are the best team, and they are the best team because of that winning mentality.”

Ellis said her players “find a way. I attribute that to the mental strength of the culture, the environment, the history, the tradition. They are vetted in pressure. You saw that tonight. The resolve is fantastic.”

Depth also helped. In Rapinoe’s place, Press scored her first goal of the tournament before a crowd of 53,512 at Stade de Lyon. After England drew even moments later, Morgan notched the game-winner in the 31st minute as the Americans extended their unbeaten streak in World Cup games decided in regulation to a tournament-record 16.

The United States has not lost this year since an away defeat to France in a January friendly.

The Americans also survived two officiating decisions involving instant replay. On the first, England’s apparent goal was disallowed because Ellen White was offside before scoring. On the second, England was awarded a penalty kick because the video assistant referee spotted a foul on Becky Sauerbrunn.

Houghton, the English captain, did not strike it well, and Naeher was in position to make the save.

“I try to stay focused,” said Naeher, who has performed in the shadows of former goalkeeping stars Briana Scurry and Hope Solo. “Take a few deep breaths. Focus. I felt I just had to try to get a good jump on it, try to get a good read and hope to make a save.”

Her teammates have never wavered in their support and said they were not surprised Naeher rose to the occasion.

“The moment of her life,” Rapinoe said.

“The player who needed to come up big,” defender Abby Dahlkemper said, “came up big.”

Naeher also made a terrific save in the first half, soaring to tip away Keira Walsh’s long-range blast.

At the other end, the Americans did what they do best: score first and score early.

In the 10th minute, Tobin Heath played the ball forward toward Rose Lavelle. Instead of taking possession, Lavelle dummied it, allowing it to roll behind her and through to the overlapping Kelley O’Hara.

The right back lofted a cross to the back side. Lucy Bronze, England’s celebrated defender, had lost track of Press, who, with perfect placement, headed the ball into the near top corner.

The Americans’ previous early goals had come in the 12th, 11th, third, seventh and fifth minutes.

Badly outplayed to that point, England answered in the 19th on a terrific sequence. Beth Mead’s left-side cross bounced nicely for White. Slipping into a channel between center backs Sauerbrunn and Dahlkemper, the striker flicked the ball well out of the reach of Naeher and into the far side of the net for her sixth goal of the tournament.

The Americans went back ahead on a sequence that began behind the center circle. Dahlkemper launched a magnificent, 40-yard ball to Press’s chest at the sideline.

Press connected with Lindsey Horan. As Horan turned, Morgan made her run into the heart of the penalty area. She gained inside position on Demi Stokes and met Horan’s pinpoint delivery for an eight-yard header past Carly Telford.

Telford started in place of injured starter Karen Bardsley.

Against England, Morgan celebrated by mimicking a sip of tea.

“I wanted to keep it interesting,” she said. “Megan Rapinoe has the best celebrations, so I had to try to step up this game. This team has had so much thrown at them, at us. We didn’t take the easy route to the final. So had some tea.”

In the 69th minute, White appeared to score another equalizer, splitting Dahlkemper and Sauerbrunn again and breaking in alone before beating Naeher with a low finish.

As England celebrated, the video assistant referee went to work. Referee Edina Alves Batista delayed the restart and waited for the video assistant referee to review the play.

The infraction was clear enough that Batista did not need to see it for herself, and the VAR ruling erased the goal.

VAR came to the fore again near the end when Sauerbrunn clipped White in front of the net. This time, the call went for England. Naeher, though, preserved the lead.

Ellis said she took the theme of the tournament — “Dare to Shine” — and added “brightest” to the end.

“I said to her, ‘She shined tonight.’ She was the brightest," Ellis said. "People are starting to see glimpses of what I see every day in training in terms of her capabilities. She is making her own mark and creating her own legacy.”

In-game highlights

by Jacob Bogage in Washington

90th+5 minute: Yellow card

England’s Nikita Parris is booked.

89th minute: England substitution

Georgia Stanway replaces Rachel Daly. Both teams are out of substitutions, unless the match goes to extra time.

88th minute: U.S. substitution

Ali Krieger enters for Kelley O’Hara for some fresh legs on defense to close out the match.

86th minute: Red card for Millie Bright

The English defender came in studs-up on a tackle on Alex Morgan, which earned her second yellow card of the match. The Lionesses will play the rest of the match with 10 players.

84th minute: Penalty saved by Alyssa Naeher

It’s the biggest stop of Alyssa Naeher’s life. Steph Houghton took the penalty for England and shot left. Naeher guessed correctly and smothered the attempt, saving the American lead, for now.

80th minute: VAR gives England a penalty

Ellen White seemingly whiffed on a golden chance in the 78th minute to tie the score and when she missed, came up livid with the referee. In the couple minutes that elapsed before the U.S. could put the ball in play, VAR determined White was fouled by Becky Sauerbrunn. Penalty kick for England.

79th minute: U.S. substitution

Carli Lloyd enters for Tobin Heath.

71st minute: English substitution

Jade Moore entered for Keira Walsh.

69th minute: VAR wipes out England goal

It would have been Ellen White’s second goal on the day, tying the match and giving her the lead in the Golden Boot race. In the 67th minute, Jill Scott spotted White unmarked between the two U.S. center backs and put her in one-on-one with American keeper Alyssa Naeher. In real time, it appeared her run was timed perfectly, but VAR ruled otherwise.

65th minute: Lavelle comes off with injury

Samantha Mewis entered for Rose Lavelle, who appeared to injure her hamstring while tracking back into the defensive half.

59th minute: English mistake, American opportunity

English keeper Carly Telford gave the ball away to Christen Press at the top of the 18-yard box and the U.S. quickly placed three attackers in the box with Telford off her line. Alex Morgan stood unmarked and onside 10 yards away from the net. But Press never looked up to find passing targets and instead tried to bend a shot on goal. The attempt was wide and cost the U.S. an opportunity to pad its margin early in the second half.

58th minute: English substitution

Fran Kirby enters for Beth Mead, who assisted on Ellen White’s goal.

47th minute: Yellow card to Horan

A very similar incident to the first booking: Lindsey Horan of the United States unintentionally smacked Ellen White in the face and earned an easy yellow card.

Halftime: USA 2, England 1

The United States is 45 minutes from the Women’s World Cup championship match, leading England midway through the semifinals, 2-1.

That remaining three-quarters of an hour will demand all the resilience the American side can muster, and perhaps another goal or two. England’s chances have come fast and heavy. So have the United States’. Almost inevitably in the second half, that will yield another score, and possibly more.

The finest touches produced goals in the first half. For the U.S., it was Christen Press — starting in place of Megan Rapinoe — nodding home a picture-perfect cross from Kelley O’Hara in the 10th minute.

English forward Ellen White answered in the 19th minute with a clinical flick past American keeper Alyssa Naeher.

Alex Morgan, the American captain, broke her scoreless streak in the 31st minute with another expert header.

And then it seemed by luck alone that neither side struck again. England appeared keen to control the pace, but the Americans counterattacked often and possession was essentially even. Naeher made a sprawling save in net, her best of the tournament, to preserve the U.S. lead. Midfielder Rose Lavelle had two chances to volley in a shot from distance, both times pressing English keeper Carly Telford to render emergency stops.

40th minute: Yellow card to England

While competing for a loose ball, Millie Bright smacked Alex Morgan with the back of her hand. Referee Edina Alves Batista of Brazil wasn’t of a mind to give a warning and went to her disciplinary book.

31st minute: Goal, USA

This time it’s Alex Morgan, ending her scoreless drought since the Americans’ opening match against Thailand. Lindsey Horan played a velvety ball into the box and Morgan sneaked inside her defender to reach the ball first, nudging the ball with her forehead past Telford. The goal puts Morgan back in the lead for the golden boot thanks to her six goals and three assists.

Morgan, who turned 30 on Tuesday, is the first player to score in the Women’s World Cup on her birthday.

25th minute: Morgan knocked down in the box

The American captain took an accidental forearm to the head while jousting for a header in the attacking area. England played the ball out to allow Morgan time to recover, and she was able to resume play without receiving any attention from the sports medicine staff. Morgan has needed some time to recover in several matches, including against Spain and Sweden.

19th minute: Goal, England

And just like that, it’s all tied. Ellen White ran free into the middle of the 18-yard box and flicked a cross past American keeper Alyssa Naeher. It’s her fourth straight World Cup match with a goal, and she takes over the scoring lead for the tournament with six.

10th minute: Goal, USA

Jill Ellis’s substitute sure looks good now. Christen Press found her way to the other side of Kelley O’Hara’s cross at the edge of the six-yard box and beat Carly Telford near-side to take an early lead. Press is in the lineup in place of Rapinoe.

Opening minutes are key

In each of England’s matches, save for a 1-0 victory over Argentina, the Lionesses have scored within the first 14 minutes. In all of the United States’ matches, it has scored within the first 12 minutes. Both sides are unbeaten in the tournament, and neither has come from behind to win a match. The first to score will have a tremendous advantage.

And we’re off!

The United States is two wins away from defending its World Cup title, and will do so at least at the start without Megan Rapinoe. Christen Press replaces her on the left wing. Striker Alex Morgan will wear the captain’s armband on her 30th birthday.

Rapinoe not warming up before match

We don’t expect to know exactly why Megan Rapinoe was held out of the starting lineup until Coach Jill Ellis addresses it, but some observers think it might be injury related.

Rapinoe not in starting lineup

The United States will open the match with Megan Rapinoe on the bench, replaced by Christen Press. Rapinoe is tied for the tournament lead with five goals, including the past four for the Americans in knockout-round wins over France and Spain.

Press subbed in for Rapinoe late in the Americans’ 2-1 quarterfinal win against France. Per The Washington Post’s Steve Goff, who is with the team in France, a team spokesman declined to comment on Rapinoe’s absence and said Coach Jill Ellis would speak about it after the match. Goff reported Rapinoe was not being held out for disciplinary reasons.

England’s Lionesses also made changes to their starting lineup, most notably holding out No. 1 goalkeeper Karen Bardsley because of injury. Bardsley had allowed only one goal this tournament, none since England’s opener.

Sue Bird on Rapinoe: ‘You just cannot shake that girl.’

U.S. Coach Jill Ellis’s unexpected lineup move comes the same day as an article on The Players’ Tribune by Sue Bird, the WNBA star and Rapinoe’s partner, discussing Rapinoe’s World Cup heroics and her Twitter spat with President Trump.

“I’ll tell you what. You just cannot shake that girl,” Bird wrote. “She’s going to do her thing, at her own damn speed, to her own damn rhythm, and she’s going to apologize to exactly NO ONE for it. So when all the Trump business started to go down last week, I mean — the fact that Megan just seemed completely unfazed? It’s strange to say, but that was probably the only normal thing about it. It’s not an act with her. It’s not a deflection. To me it’s more just like: Megan is at the boss level in the video game of knowing herself.”

Postgame reading

For the powerful Americans, the next hurdle is England, a team in terrific form and rolling in confidence. England possesses quality players, but what the team now carries is a belief it can topple the three-time champions — and for good reason. Early this year, Phil Neville’s squad won the annual SheBelieves Cup, a U.S.-hosted competition that also included French-bound Brazil and Japan. The U.S.-England tilt finished in a 2-2 draw. (Read more)

Get to know England’s brash manager, who keeps winding up in headlines, most recently for a silly row over team hotels. (Read more)

Even in a team game, it is almost impossible to overlook the deliciousness of England’s Lucy Bronze crossing paths with American Megan Rapinoe. England Coach Phil Neville has claimed that Bronze is the best player in the world, a high compliment for any player but in particular for an outside defender. Rapinoe, a forward, is the talk of the tournament, both for her consecutive two-goal performances in the knockout rounds and for raising issues that transcend sports. (Read more)

Fans in France have flaunted their passion for women’s soccer and flexed their buying-power by traveling to cheer in person. But what many have found in host cities such as Paris, Le Havre and Reims is little in the way of Women’s World Cup souvenirs to take home — that is, if they can find FIFA’s Official Fan Shops at all. The shops offer a range of official FIFA merchandise that’s far more limited that what’s typically for sale at men’s World Cups or Olympic Games. (Read more)

Colin Kaepernick is black; Megan Rapinoe is white. We’ve even championed her as the first white athlete to have Kaepernick’s back. As such, we would be negligent if we did not mention that her protest comes wrapped in the prophylactic of white privilege, writes Kevin Blackistone. (Read more)

The world is coming for the U.S. women’s soccer team. If the early stages of the knockout round at the World Cup have offered a lesson, it’s that France, England and other nations that are investing in women’s soccer are catching up to the skill, fitness and mental toughness that have defined the Americans’ success these last decades. And these fast-rising contenders are bringing new fans with them. (Read more)

In paying top dollar for top talent and providing facilities and working conditions on par with what men receive, Lyon has created a winning formula. The club has established a model for women’s professional soccer across Europe and the United States, where the National Women’s Soccer League, the latest iteration of a near-two-decade-long quest to establish a viable American professional league, remains underfunded. (Read more)

Jerry Brewer writes that it’s hard to keep count of all the polarizing ways that people describe Rapinoe: Star and pariah, exuberant and excessive, a necessary voice and an irreverent troublemaker. “But you will pay attention to her, and if you’re not too busy listening to your own voice, perhaps you will learn something.” (Read more)

The social activism of many players has become a major subplot of the tournament. Broadcasters and advertisers have taken notice, spreading those messages to a growing global audience that experiences the event mostly through television. (Read more)

The video replay system, which is being used at the Women’s World Cup for the first time, has been at the center of controversy in several matches. And though it has greatly reduced egregious errors, more subjective rulings, as well as the time spent on reviews, are areas of concern. (Read more)