Months of pre-tournament preparation, weeks of controversy and VAR and stress, days of hand-wringing—they’ve all led us here. Since the Women’s World Cup draw back in December, the United States and France, the two best teams in the world, have been on a collision course that unfortunately all but guaranteed that the eagerly anticipated clash would occur in the quarterfinals rather than the title match. Sure enough, here we are now, only two days away from the biggest game of the tournament, and it’s all set up to be just as spectacular as anyone could’ve hoped.
France have done what favored hosts typically do at World Cups: show just enough assuredness to keep their fans happy and hopeful, while not necessarily blowing anyone away—South Korea excepted. After beating the Koreans 4-0, the French have put away Nigeria, Norway, and Brazil by less impressive one-goal margins, with the latter round of 16 match going into an extremely nervy extra time. France’s notable players have all stepped up in a variety of ways, with Eugénie Le Sommer, Amandine Henry, and Wendie Renard all answering the call when needed to keep the French train rolling.
But there are weaknesses here, weaknesses that almost ended France’s tournament against a Brazilian team that played with absolutely no fear of their supposed dominance. Faced with a physical defense in the round of 16, the French attackers had a quiet game, managing only three shots on target on Barbara’s goal. The midfield performed adequately, but center backs Wendie Renard and Griedge Mbock Bathy at times seemed to struggle with knowing who to mark and when. (Mbock Bathy did make up for that with one of the blocks of the tournament in the 105th minute. Were it not for her intervention, France would probably be back on the couch right now.)
Though they’ve won all their games so far, France have only rarely played with the dominance and panache that makes you think Yeah, this is the best team in the world. Part of that is just that it’s hard to pull that trick off in World Cups. For instance, in the 2010 World Cup, Spain were the best team in the world, arguably the best ever even, and they still struggled mightily along the way, losing to Switzerland in the group and then trudging through four straight 1-0 wins in the knockout rounds on the way to lifting the trophy.
The other part, specific to France, is that they still haven’t totally clicked. Their play has often looked scripted, lacking creativity. Maybe the French knew they were good enough to win without taking too many chances (though the Brazil game really tested that theory), and maybe they will kick it up a notch now that we’re down to eight very good teams. They better, because they are about to face the toughest foe in women’s soccer.
Through three group stage games, the USWNT played exactly how they should have. First, they had that famous 13-0 obliteration of Thailand, the match that launched a million takes about sportsmanship. Then, they somehow managed to get by a heroic Christane Endler three times and secured a comfortable victory over Chile. Finally, they exorcised the demons of their 2016 Olympics humiliation with a resounding win over Sweden that ensured a perfect record through the group, with a silly +18 goal difference to boot. Spain awaited in the round of 16, a final tune-up before the French Armageddon. The only problem? Spain didn’t come to fuck around. Even while losing, 2-1, Spain exposed the U.S.’s pressure points that all their future opponents would be wise to target.
Spain, praised and admonished in turn for their preference for a safe but at times boring possession style, eschewed their usual strategy in favor of simply brutalizing the United States up and down the field. The Spaniards’ game plan centered on fouling the Americans (particularly the ineffectual duo of Injured Alex Morgan and Tired Megan Rapinoe) to break up any sort of rhythm—rhythm that was already lacking due to Jill Ellis’s decision to bench her best performer so far, Lindsey Horan. (In fairness to Ellis, who got almost everything else wrong, Horan was one yellow card away from being suspended for the France game, so not playing her was a defensible call.)
Despite losing and not really threatening the U.S. beyond their lone goal (which came off a not-at-all-unexpected mistake by Alyssa Naeher), Spain did lay out a blueprint for how to hang in there with a team that previously hadn’t been challenged this tournament. Cut off service to the forwards, interrupt their build up by pressing the shaky backline, bludgeon anyone in a dangerous position, and you just might be able to beat the United States.
And so, that’s the main question heading into Friday’s World Cup final-that-isn’t: how will France choose to play the USWNT? Will they keep employing their usual style, the one that seems exactingly engineered to beat most everyone, but which might struggle against the only team in the tournament capable of shutting it down? Or will they play like the underdogs they are, frustrate the U.S. into mistakes, and hope that one of Le Sommer, Gauvin, or even set piece demon Renard slots home a goal or two?
Their best shot is likely to shoot for something in the middle. France aren’t the kind of team adept at sitting deep and shutting up shop, but they also have to know that they could be blown away should they let the game open up. For France to advance into what would be just their second Women’s World Cup semifinal ever, they will have to be perfect against a near-perfect opponent.
France do have the talent to make it happen. They will need their attackers to torture Abby Dahlkemper and, especially, Becky Sauerbrunn. (I will restate my preference for Ellis to start Julie Ertz next to Dahlkemper, with a more attacking trio of Horan, Sam Mewis, and Rose Lavelle in midfield, though that lineup doesn’t seem likely.) They will need Amandine Henry to play like the best player in the world in order to break the United States’ physical midfield. And they will need more moments in defense like Mbock Bathy’s block against Brazil.
As for the United States, they will need to get back to their usual game and hope that their vulnerability to fatigue and physicality in the outing against Spain was just a blip. There’s a reason the United States will be heavily favored on Friday. They are better across the field, more experienced, and have been playing at a higher level recently. And in knockout tournaments, recent form is massive.
The USWNT’s players obviously will have to perform well to get by France, but it does feel like this game might be won or lost on Ellis’s shoulders. Can she get her starting lineup right? Will she bench the unimpressive Rapinoe, using her instead as a super-sub à la Carli Lloyd, in favor of starting Mallory Pugh or Christen Press on the left wing? Will she adapt her substitution patterns if the U.S. fall behind? How will she have them attack the twin towers of Renard and Mbock Bathy?
If Ellis gets even half of her decisions right, and if the Americans play as they are capable of, it likely won’t matter what France do in response. But if not, we could be in for the wildest game of the tournament so far. That’s all you can ask for from a quarterfinal featuring the best teams in the world.