Why the titanic clash between U.S. and France will be an all-time classic

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Updated: June 28, 2019

Here’s everything you need to know about Friday’s colossal quarterfinal tilt between the United States, the favorite to capture the Women’s World Cup once again, and host nation France, the greatest threat to the States’ reign.

The story so far

This was always where we were going to end up.

Since the draw for the World Cup was made in December, the June 28 quarterfinal in Paris was circled as the match to watch. The reigning champion and the host side, the two best teams in the world, have been on a collision course for half a year. Both held up their end of the bargain, winning their respective groups to set up one of the most anticipated games in the history of women’s football.

Everything about this clash makes it fit for the final.

The two teams have combined to win all eight of their matches thus far, outscoring opponents 29-2 in the process; they rank first and second in both Expected Goals for and against – the U.S. has the edge in both categories; the Parc des Princes will be a cauldron, packed to the gills with nearly 50,000 partisan fans.

Friday’s winner will be heavily favored to go on and capture the World Cup title. The trophy isn’t technically on the line, but in the eyes of many, it might as well be. Outside of this being the actual showpiece game, you can’t ask for much more.

How the United States could win

Just do its thing?

The reigning World Cup champion is the top-ranked side on the planet for a reason. France may be the tournament’s most balanced team from top to bottom – it’s close – but the USWNT boasts more explosive top-end talent. When the Americans flip the switch, nobody can match the blend of skill, athleticism, and tempo they bring to the table.

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Relying heavily on veteran stars Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath to create from wide areas, the U.S. can pull defenders out of position, crafting holes for midfielders Lindsey Horan, Sam Mewis, and Rose Lavelle to exploit. Alex Morgan, though hobbled after being kicked incessantly in the last-16 win over Spain, is still a prolific scoring threat. When the individuals aren’t firing, the high-pressing system offers an additional playmaker, forcing the weary opposition into mistakes in dangerous areas.

There are just so many ways for the USWNT to beat you.

A squad rife with big-game experience shouldn’t be fazed by the rabid French fans, either. Supremely skilled, confident, and battle-tested, Jill Ellis’ side knows a mistake-free performance should get the job done.

How France could win

If France is going to consistently threaten a U.S. backline that has looked reasonably comfortable thus far, the path of least resistance is down the right wing. Crystal Dunn has done an admirable job at left-back for the Americans, but the 26-year-old is a forward by trade, and her uneasiness in defense came to the fore against Sweden in the group stage; the Swedes weren’t shy about attacking Dunn’s side of the pitch.

Expect Corinne Diacre to employ a similar approach.

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The French bench boss can call upon either Kadidiatou Diani, who scored twice in Les Bleues’ friendly win over the U.S. in January, or dribbler extraordinaire Delphine Cascarino to get isolated out wide and make life uncomfortable for Dunn.

That aside, there’s the intangible question that has long been hovering over the nation: will France wilt under the pressure? The team has a reputation as one that crumbles when it matters most.

Is this the day France finally kills that narrative?

“Against USA I will have a lot less work to do in my team talk, there will be no (need for) motivation, the girls are absolutely firing from that perspective – full throttle,” Diacre said earlier this week, adding that the pressure is on the favored Americans to deliver.

Players to watch

Alex Morgan: Clearly battling an undisclosed ailment, Morgan’s fitness is one of the crucial questions heading into the match. Just how close to 100 percent is she? The joint-leader with five goals in the tournament, all of which came against Thailand, Morgan lacked sharpness against Spain after picking up an injury against Sweden in the group stage finale.

Getting the better of towering French defender Wendie Renard is a monumental task at the best of times, let alone when you’re not fully fit. It seems unlikely Morgan will be dropped, but such is the depth of the squad that Ellis can call upon either Carli Lloyd or Christen Press if need be.

Amel Majri: France’s No. 10 has the unenviable task of trying to shut down Heath, who is arguably the trickiest dribbler in the game, while still contributing to the attack at the other end. It’s a delicate balancing act. Get caught up high, and Heath will exploit the space behind her. Play too conservatively, and a massive part of the French attack gets neutralized.

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The Lyon left-back, 26, leads her team with three assists in the competition and will need to show that same impetus on Friday.

Lindsey Horan: Arguably the United States’ best player, Horan was left out of the starting lineup for the win over Spain with this impending contest in mind; a yellow card against the Spaniards would have ruled the 2018 NWSL MVP out of the quarterfinal. Quite the luxury to have if you’re Ellis.

The do-everything midfielder will return to the XI on Friday, where she’ll be expected to dominate the center of the pitch with her combination of passing range, scoring ability, and proficient tackling.

Key battle

Who controls the aforementioned midfield?

French captain Amandine Henry, on the receiving end of sparkling praise from the U.S. camp in the buildup to Friday’s encounter, faces her toughest test of the competition. Ellis’ specific personnel remains to be seen, but three of Julie Ertz, Horan, Mewis, and breakout star Lavelle will start in midfield for the USWNT. If the more defensive-minded Ertz drops into the backline, then the other three would form a frightening, ultra-aggressive trio.

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Can the smooth-passing Henry, who scored the extra-time winner against Brazil in the round of 16, dictate the tempo against a team that gives opposing midfielders no time to relax on the ball?

“She’s fantastic, I consider her one of the best players in the world,” Heath said of her former Portland teammate this week. “She knows what it takes to win, I think that is a huge quality.”

She’ll need to use every bit of that know-how to lead France to the semifinals.

Prediction

A high-stakes matchup often fails to deliver on the hype, but this feels like it’ll be different. This really should be an all-time classic.

France has the necessary weapons to push the Americans to the brink, but after a wake-up call in the last round against Spain, expect the United States to turn things up a couple of notches in the French capital.

When that happens, no team can keep up.

Score: United States 2, France 1 (AET)

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