The United States women are set to take on their French hosts Friday at the Parc des Princes in a long-awaited quarterfinal match-up. For two teams many saw as co-favorites heading into the World Cup, neither of them has quite played to their potential, with the U.S. beating Spain on two penalty-kick goals, and France edging out Brazil late in extra time, after two group-stage games where they struggled to find the back of the net.
Nonetheless, the bracket has shaken out as anticipated, and it’s hard to pick a favorite between the two. Let’s look at how these two teams line up against each other in several areas of the field:
The US has had problems defending out wide
Of all the matchups that should give the U.S. pause, the Kadidiatou Diani-Crystal Dunn battle looks set to tip in France’s favor. Diani has often been the difference when France has otherwise looked flat going forward, as they have for long stretches of their last three games. She can play centrally, but has mostly been deployed on the right wing, where she’s made one fullback after another look like fools with her speed and skill on the dribble. She is equally happy to draw defenders inside to make space for an overlapping Marion Torrent. France’s most consistent attacking strategy has been Diani crossing to Valerie Gauvin (more on that in a minute).
Facing Diani, of course, will be Crystal Dunn, who is not a left back, but is being played there because that’s the kind of mixed-up world we live in. Dunn has been poor defensively, getting beat down the end line multiple times by a Spain team that was clearly targeting her side of the field. Making matters worse, Dunn lines up behind Megan Rapinoe, about as unlikely a player to track back and help defend opposing wingers as any on the United States.
…but so has France
On the flip side, France’s fullbacks, Amel Majri and Marion Torrent, haven’t looked particularly solid defensively, either. Majri, like Dunn, is a converted forward, and her tendency to push high could easily leave space for Tobin Heath to wreak havoc.
On France’s right, Torrent has tended to play somewhat more conservatively, but has still gotten caught out; Brazil’s equalizer earlier this week happened when Debinha burst up the left in transition, finding space behind Torrent, and sent in a cross that was eventually put away by Thaisa.
In-form versions of Heath and Rapinoe win those matchups any day of the week, but the question is whether those Americans do show up in form. Rapinoe’s two penalty goals — and the fact that a foul against Heath led to the first of those — aside, neither were very effective against Spain. They’ll need to do better today to capitalize on the hosts’ weaknesses.
Comparing center back pairings
France’s other big attacking threat has been Gauvin, the fast, physical center forward who has been the target of most of Diani’s work out wide. Negligent marking worked in her favor against Brazil, but her goal against Norway, where she muscled past Maria Thorisdottir to get on the end of a cross by Majri, was well-earned.
Especially troublesome for the U.S. is that they haven’t looked especially well-equipped to handle a fast, physical forward willing to press aggressively. Alyssa Naeher and Becky Sauerbrunn’s combined mistakes under a high Spanish press led to Spain’s goal and almost cost the U.S. the game. Beyond that mistake, Sauerbrunn, in uncharacteristic fashion, has often looked a step slow, which doesn’t bode well with Gauvin in the mix.
France’s center backs, Wendie Renard and Griedge Mbock Bathy, have mostly fared better, with Mbock Bathy in particular often cleaning up messes left by the fullbacks, including an impressive goal-line stop against Brazil when Debinha again beat the defense out wide and nearly had an open shot at the net. But they haven’t been perfect. Renard’s own goal against Norway was fluky; Mbock’s failure to mark Cristiane closely enough on a set piece, almost leading to a goal, felt less so, and it’s not hard to envision a player like Lindsey Horan or Sam Mewis executing on a similar play.
Speaking of Horan and Mewis…
Amandine Henry is the best defensive midfielder in the world, and has probably been the single most important player for France in this tournament, with her ability to shut down opponents in the middle of the park and either dictate tempo from deep or get forward and score herself. Lindsey Horan, though, may well be the world’s best midfielder, period, so we can expect a hard-fought battle in that area of the field.
Pound for pound, any combination of Horan, Mewis, Julie Ertz, and Rose Lavelle is superior to what will likely be an Henry-Elise Bussaglia-Gaetane Thiney central midfield for France. All four of those U.S. players have been in stellar form in this tournament, and the only question is who starts, and where.
If Ellis really wanted to blow things up, she could use a midfield diamond with Ertz sitting deep and Lavelle in the No. 10 role; that would both allow Horan and Mewis to both use the full range of their skill sets, and flatter two quite forward-looking fullbacks in Dunn and Kelley O’Hara. But that would involve benching Alex Morgan, something that seems unfathomable even as she got beaten to a pulp as Spain marked her out of the game on Tuesday.
Another option would be to move Ertz to center back, the role she played in 2015, and play Horan, Mewis, and Lavelle in the midfield. However, Ellis is just probably even less likely to bench either Sauerbrunn or Abby Dahlkemper, even with Sauerbrunn not quite in form, than she is to sit Morgan.
That leaves the U.S. with a hard choice in the central midfield, and against France, it probably has to be Lavelle who sits. She’s been phenomenal in this tournament, but Henry, as noted, is a world-class destroyer, and it’s not hard to see her neutralizing Lavelle’s creativity.
The U.S. can’t afford to lose Horan’s ability to control play in the middle of the field (we saw against Spain what that looks like), Ertz’s famously tough physical presence, or the options opened up by Mewis’ long-range passing ability, so of the options Ellis is likely to consider, a midfield trio of those three players looks like the best bet. Plus, the pure size and strength advantage a midfield featuring both Horan and Mewis looks formidable against a French central midfield that, other than Henry, have been unexceptional.
Wild card: the heat
France will have the crowd behind them, but the weather has to favor the United States. Temperatures in Paris are forecast to be upwards of 85 degrees at kickoff, something a group of American players are used to playing through the summer in places like Florida, Texas, and North Carolina, will be much more accustomed to than their opponents.
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