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Team USA defenders have fueled Women's World Cup drive

USA's defender Julie Johnston, right, fends off Germany's

USA's defender Julie Johnston, right, fends off Germany's forward Alexandra Popp during the FIFA Women's World Cup 2015 Semi-final soccer match between USA and Germany in Montreal, Canada on Tuesday, June 30, 2015. Credit: EPA / ANDRE PICHETTE

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -  

Pity the plight of the poor soccer defender.

It seems the only time they get attention is when they make a blunder, get taken to the cleaners or mistakenly score a disastrous own goal (see England's Lauren Bassett in stoppage time in the 2-1 semifinal loss to Japan Wednesday).

On the flip side, there's the United States' fantastic back four, which has put together a highlight video on how to defend almost flawlessly while becoming the No. 1 reason why the Americans will meet Japan at B.C. Place for the Women's World Cup title Sunday night.

Center backs Julie Johnston and Becky Sauerbrunn and outside backs Meghan Klingenberg (left) and Ali Krieger (right) have been tough to crack.

"We've got gritty players in the back," USA coach Jill Ellis said. "We've got sophisticated players in the back. They do a great job of reading the game [and] shutting down the opponent. To be a beast back there you have to be willing to sacrifice your body and do whatever it takes."

Christie Rampone, 40, can appreciate great defense. She has played more international games as a defender (307) than any other player and is the lone American player active from the 1999 world championship team.

"They're solid. We haven't really given up too many shots in the whole tournament," said Rampone, who lost her starting spot to Johnston. "The back four has done tremendously, dropping and covering the space behind and letting [the opposition] play in front of them. The back line has been doing great in getting in the angles, blocking shots, staying more compact."

The USA has allowed only one goal in six games, recording five successive shutouts while not allowing a goal for 513 straight minutes.

Ellis tinkered with her back line during a tournament in Brazil in December, putting two relatively inexperienced players -- Johnston, 23, and Klingenberg, 26, into the lineup. It wasn't until the Algarve Cup in Portugal in March that Ellis started the four together.

"I definitely wanted our outside backs to be players to get forward and I wanted our center backs to be comfortable on the ball so you can play out," Ellis said. "We truly vetted them. Kling went to Brazil and played down there, playing against Marta. It was just a process of playing against quality opponents to really get tested."

Since then the USA is unbeaten in 12 matches (10-0-2), limiting teams to two goals -- by Mexico's Ariana Calderon in a 5-1 USA win May 17 and by Australia's Lisa DeVanna's in the Americans' 3-1 opening WWC victory June 8.

The USA defense has outscored its opposition in those games, 4-2, with Johnston tallying three goals and Klingenberg one.

Johnston, who has the least international experience of the four (18 appearances), has taken center stage for her aggressive play as one of the eight Golden Ball finalists.

"She's done a tremendous job with only playing so many games and then stepping into a World Cup and being on a big stage," Rampone said. "She just brings that energy and presence that we need."

Johnston has stolen the spotlight from her defending partner Sauerbrunn, who has played just as well, although not as spectacularly. Sauerbrunn has combined her understanding of the game and positioning to clean up messes.

"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. You just kind of learn as you go and luckily I've had amazing coaches . . . who really emphasized positioning on defense. I've watched so many clips; so the more you do it, the better you get at it."

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