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USWNT’s Pragmatic Approach Pays Off in France Win

Megan Rapinoe scored twice and the United States stymied the French attack in a 2-1 win to secure their place in the World Cup semifinals

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In the most anticipated match of the 2019 World Cup, featuring the two best teams in the world, France took more shots than the United States. They had more possession, completed more passes in the attacking third, and took more corner kicks in the quarterfinal clash.

But the U.S. won the one statistical category that matters—goals—and thus advanced to the semifinals, on the back of a Megan Rapinoe brace in a 2-1 win. They scored early, and hunkered down defensively, looking like an entirely different team from the one that opened the World Cup with a 13-0 romp over Thailand. A different team, but a favorite nonetheless—Friday’s version of the USWNT is the kind that wins tournaments.

The U.S. began the game playing with tempo and an aggressive forward push, typical to their style of play through the group stage and round of 16 win over Spain. The first shot came in the first minute, from Julie Ertz, and the first goal came in the fifth, from a Rapinoe free kick. Trying to chase down a long, quick Rapinoe throw-in, French defender Griedge Mbock Bathy dragged Alex Morgan down just outside the penalty area, earning a yellow card in the process. Rapinoe stepped to the ball and whipped in a low cross—and it skipped untouched through a thicket of bodies, bouncing between French midfielder Amandine Henry’s legs and past keeper Sarah Bouhaddi, whose vision was screened by the traffic in front of the net.

After securing an early advantage, the U.S. retreated into a defensive shell, morphing into a 5-4-1 formation at times with Ertz dropping to the backline and Morgan serving as the lone striker up top. France thus controlled much of the rest of the game in terms of possession, but the U.S. controlled the direction of play because while the French frontline saw plenty of the ball, they produced few meaningful threats. In the first half, which ended with a 1-0 U.S. lead, France completed 43 passes in the attacking third—compared to the U.S.’s mere 15—but went 0-3 on attempts inside the penalty box. Each team took six shots, but none of France’s were on target.

The second half contained more of the same, though it yielded somewhat nervier moments in defense for the USWNT. The U.S. gained necessary breathing room in the 65th minute, with a second goal in transition sparked by the two U.S. attackers who hadn’t done much all night, or against Spain in the round of 16. Morgan picked out a streaking Tobin Heath along the wing, and Heath looked up to find an open box in front of her. She dragged a horizontal pass along the six-yard box and Rapinoe connected with a smooth finish, doubling the Americans’ lead and sending the hosts into an attacking frenzy thereafter.

Wendie Renard, the towering French defender, cut the lead back to one in the 81st minute, somehow slipping past the U.S. defense unmarked on a free kick and heading home her fourth goal of the World Cup, but the USWNT fended off any further attempts to knot the score and played keepaway throughout stoppage time until the final whistle blew.

The final match statistics reflect the U.S.’s bend-don’t-break strategy once Rapinoe’s first goal had been secured. France completed 95 passes in the attacking third to just 26 from the U.S. and doubled the victors’ shot total (20 to 10), but again, that activity mostly hovered around the edges of the penalty area rather than penetrating into more dangerous zones.

Goalie Alyssa Naeher acquitted herself well after an uncertain run of play in the U.S.’s previous games, and the backline was as staunch as could be reasonably expected against the dynamic French attack. Crystal Dunn struggled at points to contain Kadidiatou Diani along the sideline, but was either able to recover or could rely on an overlapping teammate to parry the forward run. Becky Sauerbrunn and Abby Dahlkemper played practically mistake-free soccer in the middle of the defense, the latter most notably cutting off a clean shot from French star Eugénie Le Sommer early in the second half, with Naeher away from her goal. And Kelley O’Hara didn’t allow many threats to spring from her sideline, where Le Sommer was positioned but couldn’t find room to generate any of her usual magic.

A largely defensive approach seems strange, at first, coming from a team with the U.S.’s attacking verve, and which began Friday’s game playing with the same tempo it had all tournament. But that first goal changed the stylistic calculus, as did the opponent: France is worlds beyond Thailand and Chile, and even Sweden and Spain, in quality. This quarterfinal pitted the two best teams in the world, per FiveThirtyEight’s rankings, so the U.S. adopted tactics fit for this specific match.

Coach Jill Ellis’s team is well past the days of 13-0 wins and group stage games where the midfield trio can play as de facto attackers. On Friday, Ertz essentially played as another defender in between Sauerbrunn and Dahlkemper, and Sam Mewis consistently tracked back to provide support. Rose Lavelle was the most offensively minded midfielder on the evening, and she left for substitute Lindsey Horan early in the second half to add yet another capable stopper to the middle of the field.

For all the U.S.’s frontline talent, moreover, its defense has been just as dominant in the World Cup. Thailand’s and Chile’s nonexistent attacks helped, but even Spain’s goal in the last round—the U.S.’s only goal against until Renard’s—resulted from a flukish miscue rather than a structural collapse. Entering the game against France, the U.S. had allowed just 0.85 expected goals, based on shot type and location during the tournament; that total was half as much as for the second-best defense, belonging to France (1.9 xG allowed). And on Friday, France’s 20 shots produced just 1.3 xG, further reinforcing the notion that the U.S. allowed lots of chances, but no especially disastrous ones.

That’s the kind of play that wins World Cups; in their 2015 tournament win, the USWNT went 540 minutes without allowing a goal between the first half of the first group game and the final. The U.S. notched knockout round wins of 2-0, 1-0, and 2-0 before overrunning Japan in a more open 5-2 final.

And it’s the kind of pragmatic play the U.S. could choose to deploy going forward in this tournament to position itself for a repeat title. The team continued its streak of reaching every World Cup semifinal, but France posed only the most challenging, not the final, test. England awaits on Tuesday, after consecutive 3-0 wins in the round of 16 and quarterfinals, and Germany—which has yet to concede a goal—could reach the finals on the other side of the bracket.

As the worldwide level of women’s soccer compresses at the top, thrusting the competition closer and closer to the USWNT, the three-time champions cannot coast through knockout games. Spain made more trouble than expected last round, and France bettered the U.S. in every statistical category save the most important one on Friday. But Rapinoe scored two goals for the second consecutive game, and the defense held firm, and the U.S. worked its gameplan to a win. Two tough opponents still beckon, and the U.S. is still something less than a 50-50 favorite to win. But it doesn’t feel that way, after winning the final before the final, and in a manner fit for a tournament endgame.