Someday France is going to beat the United States at a major tournament. But Saturday was not that day. If they meet again this summer it will be in the gold medal match, which would not be the most surprising thing we’ve ever seen with Germany struggling a bit and Brazil not having won a knockout match at a major tournament in eight years.
There was a time (around the 2011 World Cup) when it became slightly less difficult to score against the U.S. women’s soccer team. Yes, they still racked up the shutouts against inferior teams, but when they played Brazil, Germany, Sweden, Canada (remember that 4-3 game at the 2012 Olympics), and obviously Japan, there were more unclean sheets than clean ones.
But the U.S. women posted five straight shutouts at last summer’s World Cup, the most impressive of which came over Germany in the semifinals. They conceded just one goal in three matches (to Germany) at the SheBelieves Cup back in March. And they appear to have picked up where they left off as the Olympics have begun, with zero goals allowed through their first two matches.
Yes, there were some nervous times Saturday afternoon and if France buries a chance in the first half or at the end, we’re talking a little differently right now. But even with a fairly significant change to their backline (Whitney Engen for an injured Julie Johnston), there were very few breakdowns either tactically or technically.
Two games does not a tournament make and the U.S. would like to create a little (or a lot) more offense against good defenses as we get to the semifinals and finals (or possibly quarterfinals if they draw someone like Australia). But to finish in cliche mode: You can’t lose if the other team doesn’t score. And if history is any guide, the offense will improve as the tournament progresses.
What else did we learn in the 1-0 victory over France?
1) The U.S. has depth, but 18 person rosters are tough
Jill Ellis had a choice of Engen or Emily Sonnett on the final Olympic roster and went with the experience and Engen, who was going through a miserable NWSL season in Boston. But while Engen was not spectacular Saturday, she was what a center back is supposed to be: solid, with no major errors in positioning or judgement. It says a lot about her and the U.S. in general when perhaps the last player on the roster can step up in a game against France and have a performance like that.
The rest wasn’t quite as easy for Ellis, as she was basically left with three healthy field players on her bench in Ali Krieger, Christen Press, and Lindsey Horan (Mallory Pugh also had a minor injury and Megan Rapinoe is still not ready). Horan was a pretty easy choice to replace Carli Lloyd really late (80th minute) up a goal, but putting Krieger at right back for Kelley O’Hara (pushing her up the field), saw both seem to struggle a bit, and Press barely saw the field, entering in the 90th minute. I would expect wholesale changes against a potentially demoralized Colombia squad in the group finale, but we shall see.
2) Wendie Renard put together a Ballon d’Or performance
I don’t know what else Renard could have done in this match. She won seemingly every 1-v-1 battle both in the air and on the ground against talented players such as Tobin Heath and Alex Morgan. She won just about every set piece on the offensive end, which was probably France’s best opportunity to score other than a few other chances.
At all of 6’2” tall, Renard is just so hard to get around, as poor Crystal Dunn found out on a couple of occasions, but she is also fairly fast and has great coordination for someone that tall. And good luck marking her in the air, in the absence of Johnston, Allie Long tried her best, but she was giving up a good six inches to start with. Maybe it’s Renard that will finally lead France to a big win in the knockout rounds.
Wendie Renard having one of the more dominant performances I’ve ever seen by a centerback in women’s soccer.
— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) August 6, 2016
3) Sitting deep
In addition to the pace of Renard and Griedge Mbock Bathy, France frustrated the U.S. by sitting deep and not allowing them to play Alex Morgan into channels, because there simply were none, anything deeper than them was going to be picked up by goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi or go out of bounds. It also prevented Heath and Dunn from having space to run at people. Although Heath occasionally found pockets in the middle, Amandine Henry and Elise Bussaglia controlled that area very well.
However, it also didn’t allow France to get its outside backs forward as much as they would have liked and that stifled their attack. The lineup was interesting anyway, with Louisa Cadamuro (nee Necib), one of France’s all-time greats, don’t get me wrong) a little wasted in a wide position (U.S. killer Elodie Thomis didn’t come on until late) and Eugenie Le Sommer was left on the bench (Marie-Laure Delie did get a couple of decent chances). But France seems damned if they do and damned if they don’t at the moment against the U.S.
4) Set pieces
The U.S. goal was not directly off a set piece, but it was a “recycling” after a France clearance (by Renard, who else?) Becky Sauerbrunn ran down the ball quickly and didn’t hesitate to give it to O’Hara for a better angle. When O’Hara dutifully delivered a cross-field ball, France still wasn’t sure where it needed to be, right back Jessica Houara seemed to be wanting to cover inside, just as New Zealand’s Ria Percival was on the United States’ second goal on Wednesday.
While it was Morgan wide open against the Ferns, this time it was Heath unmarked. Again, it was a near post shot, but this time it ricocheted off the inside of the post, where Lloyd (of course) was there to bury it. A play like that shows how small the margins are between winning and losing can be at the highest level and how amazing a 13-game Olympic winning streak is for the U.S.
— Aly Wagner (@alywagner) August 6, 2016
5) Hope Solo stands tall
Hope Solo’s NWSL form has not been great this season, probably not up to par with her Olympic teammates Alyssa Naeher and Ashlyn Harris. But she’s obviously going to be it for the U.S. in Brazil barring injury, which largely is fine (although we’d love to see the others given some chances in friendlies, at least). Solo was barely tested against New Zealand, and looked a bit shaky on a couple of early crosses Saturday, but gained confidence as the match went along, her biggest moment coming late in the first half when she raced out to stop Delie on a half-breakaway.
— The Equalizer (@EqualizerSoccer) August 6, 2016
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