Ever since the New England Patriots began their dynasty in 2001, it has warped the way fans view the NFL. No game, transaction, nor front-office decision exists in a vacuum. They happen in a world in which Bill Belichick occupies a portion of football fans’ collective consciousness. Every action is, in some way, an effort to best the Patriots. The same has been true in the NBA during the Golden State Warriors’ recent stretch of dominance, or when the Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers, or Chicago Bulls were winning championships before them. International women’s soccer is still a relatively young sport by comparison, but for the entirety of the 30-plus years of FIFA-sanctioned competition, the sentiment has applied to the U.S. women’s national team as well.
The United States has reigned supreme since winning the first FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991. The USWNT is the best team in the history of the sport; it has also helped drive the game’s popularity and development, both domestically and globally. They are expected to win every tournament they enter: Anything less than a trophy is a failure.
At the 2019 World Cup in France, the U.S. has looked the part. After breaking the tournament’s scoring record in a 13-0 drubbing of Thailand, they beat Chile and Sweden by a combined 5-0 to sweep the group stage. Favorites have dominated this summer and the top teams have dropped only a handful of points. France are no exception, winning all three of their opening-round games. The United States and France escaped their respective round of 16 opponents in 2-1 victories and will meet in Friday’s quarterfinal. The world’s two best teams will play in what might be a de facto final in Paris.
Friday’s matchup isn’t just about which favorite will continue their quest for a World Cup; it’s a pivot point in the future of women’s soccer. The USWNT has been the sport’s dominant force since winning the inaugural competition. The Americans have never finished worse than third at a World Cup, and have claimed the trophy a record three times. Of the six Olympics to feature women’s soccer, they’ve won four gold medals and one silver.
But things are changing, and the Americans’ grip on the sport is loosening. Seven of the eight World Cup quarterfinalists are from Europe, including France, England, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands—all traditional global powers in men’s soccer, and countries with the infrastructure to help advance the women’s game through greater investment. Germany and Norway—another quarterfinalist—have each won World Cups in the past, but the current state of the game reveals more signs of global parity. The gap between the U.S. and its competition is closing. It’s not that the United States is less talented than in years past—they’re still the most skilled squad in the game—but that the rest of the world is catching up.
The latest professional women’s league in the United States, the National Women’s Soccer League, has been in existence since 2012 and still offers American players ample competition, but there’s been a willingness by American players to ply their trade abroad, including Lindsey Horan’s excursion to Paris and brief spells by Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, and Crystal Dunn in Europe. The entirety of the USWNT plays in the NWSL, and while the league is strong, its teams are still a step behind the most dominant abroad, especially in France, where all but two members of the French national team play professionally. Lyon is the best club team on the planet, and winners of a record six Champions League titles, including four in a row, while Paris Saint-Germain has finished second in the competition twice in the past five tries. Seven players on France’s squad this summer play at Lyon (six started the Champions League final), and eight more club members are scattered across other World Cup rosters. England’s FA Women’s Super League fully professionalized last year with more Premier League teams ready to flex the full might of their financial superiority by sponsoring women’s teams. And Germany, which like England and France banned women from playing competitive soccer for much of the 20th century, can lay claim to more Champions League titles than any other country in Europe.
France’s current “golden generation” has been in contention for the World Cup since 2011, when Les Bleues were first mentioned as a dark horse contender. Germany landed on the side of the draw without the U.S. or France and looks to have an easy path to the final, though their chances of winning were severely damaged by the loss of their best player, Dzsenifer Marozsán, to injury in their opening game. England won this year’s SheBelieves Cup in March after finishing second to the United States last year. They await the winner between France and the United States in the semifinal after their 3-0 win against Norway on Thursday.
As my colleague Zach Kram pointed out, the USWNT excels against lesser opponents. They went undefeated in 30 games against opponents ranked outside of FIFA’s top 10 since the 2016 Olympics, outscoring foes by nearly four goals per game. But in 16 games against quality teams, they went 9-3-4, scoring only 1.56 goals and allowing 1.13. Two of those losses came against France, and a third matchup ended in a draw.
The United States entered the tournament as the betting favorites to win, but FiveThirtyEight’s predictive model pegged France as having the best shot. It’s an unfortunate consequence of the draw that they should meet in the quarterfinals rather than a potential matchup in the final, but the result of Friday’s game might mark a shift in the balance of power in the game.
The rise of European teams, as evidenced by the quarterfinals, seemed inevitable, and France is the continent’s headliner. Some of it has to do with a squad peaking at the right moment—Eugénie Le Sommer, 30, Amandine Henry, 29, and Wendie Renard, 28, are all in their primes—and having so many French players on the same professional team gives the national team a unique advantage.
When Spain and Germany won the men’s World Cup in 2010 and 2014, respectively, they did so with squads featuring a bulk of players coming from one of two clubs. Twelve of Spain’s 23 representatives in South Africa played for either Barcelona or Real Madrid. Eleven of Germany’s cup winners called either Borussia Dortmund or Bayern Munich home. That level of familiarity between players created a chemistry not often seen at the international level, where time spent together is sparse. Ten members of France’s roster this summer play for either Lyon or Paris Saint-Germain. Seven of them started in their round of 16 win over Brazil.
When the United States and France meet at the Parc des Princes on Friday, they’ll feature arguably the best collection of talent in the tournament’s history. There is no team on the planet better equipped to deal with the USWNT’s intimidating attack than France, and similarly, none more prepared to reverse the pitch and exploit the Americans’ weakness on the counterattack. The Stars and Stripes boast familiar faces like Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath, as well as younger stars like Horan and Mallory Pugh. Les Bleues, meanwhile, have Le Sommer leading the attack, and midfielder Henry and center back Renard completing the spine of the team.
As Ryan O’Hanlon mentioned in his newsletter, No Grass in the Clouds, France dominated Brazil in the round of 16, despite the 2-1 scoreline and the need for extra time. They more than doubled the Brazilians’ completed passes in the attacking third, and allowed only one pass inside the box all game. At full strength, the United States has the most dynamic front line in the world. But with Morgan nursing an injury, and coach Jill Ellis showing no signs of turning to physical forward Jessica McDonald off the bench, it could be difficult for the U.S. to create the same kinds of chances they did in their games thus far in the tournament.
The Americans floundered against Spain in the round of 16, failing to register a single pass in the penalty box in the second half, and mustering only 10 total shots, only two of which were on target—a far cry from their first three games, when they logged 40 and 20, 26 and nine, and 16 and four. More concerning still was how they scored their two goals: Both came from the penalty spot courtesy of Rapinoe. While she should be lauded for keeping her cool under pressure, it’s a cause for alarm that the team managed just eight shots in open play (and four inside the box) against a Spanish team that allowed Germany seven chances on net, and 13 total.
The U.S. were similarly unimpressive defensively. Spain failed to convert in the second half, but it was not for lack of chances. Nine times the Spaniards launched crosses into the box, only to watch the ball land errantly or be cleared away. For 45 minutes, they probed up the sides of the pitch, sending long balls in the direction of defenders Dunn and Kelley O’Hara. For the most part, the American back line was able to parry threats before they turned into goal-scoring chances. They might not be so fortune against France. Le Sommer and Henry have each tallied twice this tournament, and Renard has added three more. More troublesome for the Americans is that for the first time all tournament, they’ll be facing a team that can match them physically. Shaky goalkeeping from Alyssa Naeher is a cause for concern, and the defense is at risk of buckling against France’s well-rounded attack.
Despite their flaws, the U.S. is still the most talented team in the world. Each of their midfielders and forwards is arguably the best at their position, and most are defending a title they won four years ago. The markets and the prediction models both favor them to beat France and repeat as champions. But a loss wouldn’t feel like an upset. A victory against France would reassert the USWNT’s hegemony after their Olympic blunder in 2016, but would not entirely snuff out the threat to its throne. It’s only a matter of time before the rest of the world catches up on the pitch. A win for Les Bleues still might not be a passing of the torch, but a France win would mark the earliest exit for a U.S. team in its World Cup history. And it would send a message: Women’s soccer is now a global affair, and those once considered gate-crashers are ready to take their seats at the main table.