The England skipper’s 84th-minute spot-kick was held by Alyssa Naeher, shortly before Houghton’s fellow centre-back Millie Bright was sent off for a second bookable offence, as the Lionesses exited at the last-four stage for a third major tournament in a row.
Winger Christen Press and striker Alex Morgan scored with headers either side of Ellen White’s instinctive equaliser as the USA took a deserved 2-1 lead in a frenetic first half.
A spirited Lionesses side improved after the break and White thought she had equalised with a low strike from Jill Scott’s flicked through ball, only to be found to be marginally offside on a video assistant referee (VAR) review.
White was then clipped in the area and Phil Neville’s side were awarded a penalty after another VAR review.
But Houghton could not convert from the spot and the wait for a senior England side to reach a first global final since 1966 goes on.
The USA, who were backed by the majority of the 53,512 crowd in a gripped Stade de Lyon, are through to their third consecutive World Cup final and will now bid for a record fourth title when they face either Sweden or European champions the Netherlands on Sunday.
Those two sides meet on Wednesday, with the losers taking on the Lionesses in Nice in Saturday’s third-place play-off.
So close but yet so far for England
The Lionesses were the first senior England side to reach the semi-finals of three consecutive major tournaments, after their third-place finish at the 2015 World Cup in Canada and their run to the last four at Euro 2017.
After winning the invitational SheBelieves Cup in the USA earlier this year, victories over Scotland, Argentina and Japan saw them top Group D in France, as belief grew that they could win their first major trophy.
Consecutive 3-0 victories over Cameroon and Norway in the knockout stages followed, but Neville’s side were unable to play with the same composure on the ball against the confident defending champions.
England came under intense pressure in the early stages and may have been slightly relieved to be only 2-1 down at half-time, after the lively Rose Lavelle twice went close for the holders.
England had the better of the second 45 minutes and were rewarded with a late chance to level when Becky Sauerbrunn made contact with White’s shooting leg when the Manchester City striker was poised to tuck home.
However, Houghton’s penalty was weak and Naeher saved low to her right – the third spot-kick out of four England have missed in this tournament.
Two minutes later Bright was dismissed for a second yellow card for a clumsy foul on Morgan.
Some of the devastated England players sank to the ground in despair as the final whistle extended their wait for a first major title.
USA reach yet another final
Pre-tournament favourites the USA, who have reached at least the semi-finals of every Women’s World Cup, will now contest their fifth final.
After narrow 2-1 wins over Spain and hosts France in their past two games, they showed their experience and clever game-management to see out a third consecutive win by the same scoreline.
They were rampant early on, and led through Press’ powerful header, continuing their record of scoring inside the first 12 minutes in all of their games so far in this tournament.
They had almost netted even earlier, when Lavelle nutmegged Bright in the fourth minute and rounded Demi Stokes, only to see her close-range shot well saved by Carly Telford, who played in goal for England with number one Karen Bardsley out with a knock.
Morgan’s sixth goal of this tournament put her level with White again at the top of the standings in the battle for the Golden Boot, after White had turned home Beth Mead’s excellent ball from the left to level for England.
Hampshire-born coach Jill Ellis’ side went through without their star of the previous two matches, winger Megan Rapinoe, who was a surprise late absentee with a hamstring injury.
Did Neville’s first-half tactical gamble backfire?
Throughout this tournament, England head coach Neville – who took charge of the Lionesses in January 2018 – has insisted his side’s style is “non-negotiable”, but he raised eyebrows by tweaking his line-up tactically for Tuesday’s semi-final.
Rather than playing wide on the right, Lyon winger Nikita Parris was moved to a more central role, playing as a deep striker in something closer to a 4-4-2 formation than the tried-and-trusted 4-2-3-1 that had seen the Lionesses through to the last four.
Toni Duggan and Fran Kirby were left out with versatile winger Rachel Daly and Arsenal’s Beth Mead coming in to the side to start as wide midfield players. England had a 4-2-4 feel when they were attacking, but Neville’s team were frequently overrun in midfield in the first half.
The introduction of Kirby at number 10 after the break and Parris’ switch back out to the wings appeared to propel England back in to the game, as they rallied and saw more of the ball in the USA’s half.
Ultimately, they remain without a win over the USA in the World Cup, having lost 3-0 in 2007’s quarter-finals and being beaten in 10 of their 16 contests overall.
But the Lionesses have won over millions of new supporters at home, with record television audiences watching their run to the latter stages.
And their next major tournament will be on home soil, with 2021’s European Championship to be played in England.
‘I’ve moved on from this already’ – reaction
England boss Phil Neville: “We’ll have to allow 24 to 48 hours for this to sink in and for them to get over this disappointment. Nothing I can say will make them feel better.
“Elite sport and being on top of the world means that on Saturday in Nice [in the third-place play-off] we have to produce a performance. It will tell me a lot about my players.
“I’ve moved on from this already and now I’m looking forward to Saturday’s game. I’ll see the attitude, commitment of my players. They won’t let me down, because they never have.”
England captain Steph Houghton: “It’s hard to put into words. We took one of the best teams in the world all the way. I’m so proud but I’m disappointed with the penalty and the goals we conceded.
“Ultimately we know that we can beat them and our aim was to win and we didn’t do that. I got told today [that I’d be taking any penalty] and I’ve been practising them a lot and I was confident.
“I just didn’t get a good connection. I’m gutted. I’ve let the team down. I’m gutted and heartbroken. We were so close but I’m proud of everyone because we gave it everything.”
USA boss Jill Ellis: “I can’t even express how proud I am. It was such a great effort from everybody. Everyone stepped up, and that’s what this team’s about.
“That was her [Alyssa Naeher’s] shining moment. We have one more game. I couldn’t be prouder of this group. We have four days this time in between, so that will help.
“I told them [in a post-match huddle]: ‘Stay humble. We’ve got one more.'”
England off the spot – the stats
- USA become the first side to reach three consecutive World Cup finals – they played Japan in 2011 and 2015.
- USA set a new World Cup record of 11 successive wins with victory, beating Norway’s previous mark of 10 in a row (1995-99).
- Steph Houghton is only the second player to miss a penalty in a World Cup semi-final. Both misses have been against USA, also Germany’s Celia Sasic in 2015.
- England’s Millie Bright became the fourth player to be sent off at the World Cup.
- Christen Press’ opening goal ended England’s national record run of 381 minutes without conceding at the tournament.
- USA have never lost a World Cup game they have scored first in, winning 36 and drawing four.
- Ellen White is only the third player in World Cup history to score in three consecutive knockout games, after Carli Lloyd (2015) and Abby Wambach (2011).