Despite win, U.S. learns challengers to throne are gaining strength
PARIS — The world is coming for the U.S. women’s soccer team.
If the early stages of the knockout round at the World Cup have offered a lesson, it’s that France, England and other nations that are investing in women’s soccer are catching up to the skill, fitness and mental toughness that have defined the Americans’ success these last decades. And these fast-rising contenders are bringing new fans with them.
But with a spot in the tournament’s semifinals at stake Friday at Parc des Princes, the U.S. women played their best soccer yet to keep their toughest challenger to date at bay.
Propelled by two goals from co-captain Megan Rapinoe, a terrific performance from goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and a phalanx of defenders patrolling the back line, the U.S. ended France’s World Cup dreams with a 2-1 win, eliminating the host nation before the competition shifts to Lyon for the semifinals and final.
The Americans’ immediate reward is a semifinal against England on Tuesday, when a win would leave them one victory shy of their fourth World Cup championship. But the road will only get tougher as the level of competition increases.
Said Rapinoe of the challengers: “The level is just growing, it seems like, every day in the women’s game. You’re seeing performances in the World Cup that are just fantastic. England was super-clinical the other night. So we have absolutely our work cut out for us.”
Cheered on by a wildly partisan, capacity crowd of 45,595, France dominated possession, controlling the ball 60 percent of time. France attempted twice as many shots (20 to the Americans’ 10).
But with the U.S. playing a defensive formation that stymied France’s attackers, just five of France’s shots were on target. The tactical shift by U.S. coach Jill Ellis was an implicit acknowledgment that Les Bleues are a team to be feared.
So, too, is England, which played with tremendous confidence Thursday in defeating Norway, 3-0, to earn its spot in the semifinals.
“It’s no secret we have to get better,” said Rapinoe, who has five goals in the tournament and four in the past two games. “We have to get better offensively, better with our possession and our passing.”
Rapinoe had said she hoped for a circus in Friday’s quarterfinal, a clash that had been longed for and dreaded in equal parts since the draw in December. No supporter of the women’s game wanted to see the tournament stripped of its defending champion or host nation with two rounds remaining. But that was the likely outcome after the draw.
On Friday, Rapinoe got something akin to a circus in what the French media dubbed “Le Grand Match.” It was a joyful carnival at Parc Des Princes, where the two nations’ pride in their women’s teams was on earsplitting, Technicolor display.
There was red, white and blue in every direction. And the capacity crowd threw itself into full-throated renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “La Marseillaise.”
The band of flag-waving U.S. supporters known as the American Outlaws had marched and sung their way through the streets of Paris en route to the stadium in the leafy southwest residential quadrant of the city. And France’s supporters, known as the Irresistables, braved a midsummer heat wave in even greater numbers, accounting for as much as 75 percent of ticket-holders, according to the French press.
The Americans’ strengths were many.
They boasted a front line of prolific goal-scorers in Alex Morgan and Rapinoe, with so much depth on the bench that defender Ali Krieger boasted the U.S. had both the best and the second-best teams in the tournament. They also had mental toughness and the unwavering conviction that they could out-tough any opponent, dig out of any deficit and win in myriad ways — a barrage of goals, a physical slugfest, a defensive stand — by any ugly means necessary.
One question hung in the air as the teams took the pitch: Would the series of controversies that dogged the Americans — some their own making — prove a distraction?
Three months before they launched the defense of their 2015 World Cup title, they sued their bosses, the U.S. Soccer Federation, for gender discrimination. They drew criticism for what some viewed as classless celebrating in the late stages of their 13-0 rout of Thailand in their tournament opener. A defensive gaffe against Spain exposed a competitive vulnerability, putting a spotlight on Naeher’s lack of big-game experience.
France, of course, had strengths of its own.
With seven starters competing for club power Olympique Lyonnais, the French had cohesiveness, the tournament’s tallest defender in 6-foot-2 Wendi Renard, a battle-tested goalkeeper in Sarah Bouhaddi and a passionate home crowd that outnumbered American fans roughly 3-to-1.
But once again, Rapinoe spoke first and loudest — just five minutes in — with her right foot, knocking in a free kick for a score. In the 65th minute, she scored again, leveling the fiercest rebuttal to critics that any athlete can: the sheer brilliance of her play.
“It’s the knockout round,” Rapinoe said. “You don’t get past it without statement performances. And what a huge performance by the team. We were under the pump basically from the time that we scored.
“Just a massive defensive performance from us – the grit and heart and focus and tenacity it takes to do that is tremendous.”