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Michelle Kaufman: It’s a shame the U.S. women face France in quarterfinal, not championship

UPDATED: Thu., June 27, 2019

United States’ Alex Morgan eyes the ball during the Women’s World Cup round of 16 soccer match against Spain at Stade Auguste-Delaune in Reims, France, on Monday. (Alessandra Tarantino / Associated Press)
United States’ Alex Morgan eyes the ball during the Women’s World Cup round of 16 soccer match against Spain at Stade Auguste-Delaune in Reims, France, on Monday. (Alessandra Tarantino / Associated Press)
By Michelle Kaufman Miami Herald

The official Women’s World Cup schedule says the championship game is July 7, but let’s be honest: Friday’s quarterfinal between top-ranked United States and host France is the match everyone has had circled on their calendars since the draw last December.

Only because of FIFA’s shaky rankings and silly Ping-Pong ball system of determining the draw are this tournament’s two best teams – and biggest ticket sellers – playing each other nine days before the final. If they did the draw the way tennis tournaments or the NCAA basketball tournaments do it, the teams ranked No. 1 (USA), No. 3 (England) and No. 4 (France) would not wind up on the same side of the bracket.

Instead, either the Americans or the French will be eliminated by Friday evening. That’s a shame.

The game is so highly anticipated that the cheapest tickets on StubHub were going for close to $500 and VIP seats at the Parc des Princes in Paris were between $3,000 and $4,000.

If the United States plays like it did against Spain in the Round of 16, host France could be the team left standing. Consider that the French have beaten the Americans twice and tied once the past three times they played, including a 3-1 win in January.

And the Americans looked vulnerable in the 2-1 victory against Spain. Both U.S. goals came on penalty kicks, and the second one was after a soft foul.

Surely, the French have taken detailed notes on how Spain neutralized the typically potent American offense. Known for their slick short passes and possession style, the Spaniards changed their tactics against the Americans. They were uncharacteristically physical (17 fouls compared to five for the U.S. team), cut off passes to the U.S. forwards, and completely shut down U.S. superstar Alex Morgan.

Since scoring five goals against overmatched Thailand in the opener, Morgan has been scoreless. She sat out the Chile game, spent the second half of the Sweden game on the bench after getting knocked around in the opening half and was rendered ineffective against Spain.

U.S. coach Jill Ellis waited until the 85th minute to replace Morgan with Carli Lloyd, which seemed too long. It will be interesting to see Ellis’ substitutions against France.

Spain also pressured the U.S. back line, which had not been tested much all tournament, and came away with the lone goal against the Americans thus far. It was the first goal conceded by the U.S. team in 647 minutes.

Although the U.S. roster is loaded with players who can score, Morgan needs to step it up against France. She has not been at her best, and faces another tough challenge against a French back line that includes 6-foot-2 Wendie Renard (the tallest player in the tournament) and Griedge Mbock Bathy. Morgan is 5-7, but skillful and fast enough to get around the world’s top defenders when she is on her game.

The good news for the Americans is that France didn’t look so hot, either, in its last game.

The French needed extra time and a 107th-minute goal by Amandine Henry to get past gritty Brazil, which held France to just three shots on goal. Brazil nearly scored in the 105th minute, but center back Mbock Bathy rescued the French with one of the best defensive plays of the tournament. Had she not raced back to block the shot, the United States would likely be playing Brazil on Friday.

Despite lots of love from home crowds, France, while undefeated, has not looked as good as usual after beating South Korea 4-0 in the opener. The French had to work hard to beat a better-than-expected Norway team 2-1, struggled to get past Nigeria 1-0 and then survived the tense clash with Brazil.

Kadidiatou Diani, who scored twice in the 3-1 win over the United States in January, is scoreless in this World Cup. She would love nothing more than to find the back of the net against the United States.

There will be immense pressure on the French team to return to top form and win on Friday. But there is more pressure on the Americans. Much more.

They are the Cup favorites, the defending three-time champions, and they are battling in court for equal pay, so another title would help their case. They lost in the quarterfinals at the 2016 Rio Olympics, their earliest exit ever from a major tournament. Anything less than the World Cup trophy will be deemed a failure.

No matter who wins, it should be an exciting game and a festive atmosphere with both teams’ fans decked in red (rouge), white (blanc) and blue (bleu).

“Hopefully, it’s a complete spectacle! Just an absolute media circus! I hope it’s huge and crazy, because that’s what it should be,” said U.S. captain Megan Rapinoe. “This is the best game. This is what everyone wanted.”

Yes, it is. Just a little too soon.

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