Women’s World Cup Preview: United States vs. France

Women’s World Cup Preview: United States vs. France


This was the game — the United States against France in a quarterfinal — that everyone circled in pencil as soon as the Women’s World Cup draw was made in December, and in pen after France handled the Americans with ease in an exhibition match in January. The stadium will be full. The air will be hot. The stakes will be high. But how will the match go?

Why the United States will win.

The Americans are the most accomplished women’s team in the world, the defending World Cup champion. They also are the deepest team in the world, so blessed with talent that it keeps Carli Lloyd, a former world player of the year, on the bench in case of emergencies. And they are, without question, the most confident team.

“We have the best team in the world,” United States defender Ali Krieger famously said at this World Cup, “and the second-best team in the world.”

The United States is not surprised to be here, facing host France in Paris for a berth in the semifinals — which the Americans have reached in all seven previous Women’s World Cups.

The French can take some confidence from the January meeting. There is a difference, though, between an off-season friendly with several regulars missing and a World Cup quarterfinal with a veteran team purring like a finely tuned sports car. A team that can attack with as many as eight players at once when its fullbacks, Crystal Dunn and Kelley O’Hara, are fully engaged. A team that has, at last, seen its goalkeeper, Alyssa Naeher, tested in a big game. A team that can sense the world shifting, the European nations rising, and wants no part of being the American side that lets the program’s flag dip.

This is a team accustomed to the pressure of a scorching hot day with impossibly high stakes.

“What people tend to not realize is the U.S. team lives in pressure,” United States Coach Jill Ellis said. “When you’re young and you come into this program, there’s always a target on your back. So it’s almost a place where we live regularly.

“Yeah, this is a big game, and I think the players know that. But I also think it’s that expectation of being ready for this moment. We talk a lot about it. They are wired for this. They are built for this.”

Why France will win.

When France took apart South Korea in the opening game of the World Cup, it looked as if no team in the field could match the hosts, with Amandine Henry carving up defenses and centering balls to Eugénie Le Sommer for tap-ins and Wendie Renard towering over defenses to turn headers into pinpoint passes or devastating finishes, then racing back into position to break up even the whiff of an opposing attack.

But in hindsight, that opening night — the fans roaring, the players smiling, everything working to perfection — might have been the high point of France’s World Cup. Ever since, there have been issues: an own goal against Norway, some V.A.R.-assisted luck against Nigeria, an extra-time victory against an aging Brazil that threw every punch it had.

No, getting to the quarterfinals has not been a waltz for Coach Corinne Diacre and her team, and getting past the United States will not be any easier. But there are reasons, beyond a home crowd and a perceived destiny that France has to win a Women’s World Cup sometime, to think the hosts have a real chance on Friday. The center backs Renard and Griedge Mbock Bathy, teammates for club and country, are a formidable barrier to any attack, especially one led by (a possibly injured) Alex Morgan, who was battered by Spain in her last game. Kadidiatou Diani offers a serious threat on the right wing, especially if France counters quickly against a United States team programmed to attack en masse, and Le Sommer, Henry and Valérie Gauvin have shown themselves to be capable finishers.

Sure, there is that gnawing doubt that France has never won anything of note, that it has never found its way past the Americans into women’s soccer’s true elite tier. But this time it will take its shot at home, in front of its fans.

“They are the reigning champions, they’ve got a great trophy case, we’ve still got a lot to prove,” Henry said Thursday. “But I think we’ve played very well over the past 18 months. We’re well aware of our abilities. We want to show that tomorrow. And I think that we can go toe to toe with this side — I think we can beat them. We’ve already shown that. We need to do that in this competition itself.”

How to watch

Friday’s game will be broadcast by Fox Sports and Telemundo in the United States. Fox’s pregame starts at 2 p.m. Eastern, and the game will kick off at 3 p.m.

What’s next?

The winner will play England, a 3-0 winner over Norway, in the semifinals on Tuesday in Lyon. The loser will be bitterly disappointed and facing serious questions about its preparations, its psyche and its future.

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