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Women's World Cup: U.S. semifinal win pivots on pair of penalty kicks

MONTREAL — Julie Johnston has been one of the breakout stars of this Women's World Cup, helping lift the U.S. national team to its second straight appearance in the final. But for a few anxious moments Tuesday, that dream run turned into a nightmare scenario.

With the U.S. and Germany scoreless in the 59th minute at Olympic Stadium, Johnston attempted to corral a bouncing ball in the box. She got caught in a moment of hesitation, then tugged at the shoulder of Alexandra Popp as the German winger sneaked in to take a lunging shot.

Referee Teodora Albon pointed to the spot — and World Cup leading scorer Celia Sasic promptly fired wide.

Seven minutes later, Alex Morgan drew a controversial penalty at the other end before Carli Lloyd converted. Kelley O'Hara's late insurance tally sealed the 2-0 semifinal win, booking the United States' ticket to Sunday's final in Vancouver.

"I wish I had that moment back," Johnston said. "It was definitely an emotional roller coaster. But it's a team sport, and the team really stepped up for me. I really can't thank them enough. I'm sure I'll thank them all the way to the final. It definitely was emotional, I definitely screwed that one for the team and I'm definitely apologetic for that."

It was an uncharacteristic error for the 23-year-old, who has played every minute of the Americans' run despite entering the tournament with 11 caps. With Johnston at the heart of the back line, the U.S. has allowed just one goal in six matches.

"She just felt so bad," U.S. forward Alex Morgan. "So I just went up to her and told her we have the best second chance you could ever ask for — let's take advantage of it."

Added center back Becky Sauerbrunn: "Those balls are one of the absolute trickiest balls to deal with as a defender. It happens to all of us."

Although Johnston appeared to be the last defender — making it a potential red card for denial for a clear goal-scoring opportunity — Albon only pulled out a yellow card.

Should Johnston have been sent off?

"The rule says yes," Germany coach Silvia Neid said via a translator. "But she didn't get a red card."

That officiating was put further under the microscope in the 67th minute when Germany defender Annike Krahn took down Morgan on the edge of the box. Replays showed the contact was initiated just outside the penalty area, but Albon gave the U.S. a spot kick that Lloyd emphatically fired home.

"My first reaction was I already wanted to build the wall" for a free kick, Germany goalkeeper Nadine Angerer said. "Then I was a little bit confused that it was a penalty."

Neid echoed that opinion, saying the foul was "clearly outside of the area."

When asked about the officiating, U.S. coach Jill Ellis didn't deny that the calls went in her team's favor but indicated the U.S. earned the result with its play beyond those two sequences.

"It's just a part of the game in terms of the officials," Ellis said. "So whether I'm on the receiving end or the other end, it's not something I usually comment on or criticize. But you know what, I also thought between the [penalty boxes] we were a very good team."