A pair of hard-fought 2-1 victories this week propelled the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) to the World Cup semifinals, where they will face England. Four consecutive goals from the indefatigable Megan Rapinoe, the first player to accomplish such a feat, downed Spain and host-nation France.
USWNT head coach Jill Ellis’ decision to bench Lindsey Horan, the world’s best at her position, has been questioned, but respected. Ellis’ tactic of allowing the French side to retain possession in unproductive areas of the pitch following Rapinoe’s fifth-minute strike has been lauded.
The USWNT’s flexibility to fall into a back five, with Julie Ertz dropping back into an already formidable back line, has been exalted. The play of left back Crystal Dunn, who — unlike right back Kelley O’Hara ‘09 — has just made the positional switch to defense, has been commended. Alyssa Naeher’s ability to shake off considerable doubt as an untested goalkeeper by making fingertip saves has been pronounced.
The stardom of Rapinoe — who converted two penalty kicks against Spain and then doubled down with another brace against France, all while playing through injuries — is the storyline of the World Cup.
Ask any one of the 45,595 in attendance at Parc des Princes, and they will tell you they saw the world’s two best teams play. This is not to say that the English, the USWNT’s semifinal opponent, will be anything less than a formidable opponent. But between FiveThirtyEight’s one-two ranking of the USWNT and France, and the clinical display of soccer excellence shown on Friday, the quarter-final matchup that was destined since the groups were announced has been realized as a de facto final.
Plenty of fans back in the United States benefited from a letter written by O’Hara and Allie Long that excused them of their work obligations for the latter half of Friday in order to watch the spectacle. Plenty more made the trip all the way to Paris.
The atmosphere was soccer at its best. American Outlaws marched into the stadium in droves only to be overtaken by a home French crowd twice the size. The chants began early and often, and in full force resonated around the stadium. From seats practically at midfield on field level to the highest peaks of Parc des Princes, the sold-out crowd made itself heard.
“By far the best atmosphere I have ever witnessed at a women’s match to start the game,” former USWNT player Julie Foudy ‘92 tweeted. “The French national anthem gave me chills.”
The fast start of the USWNT, punctuated by a brilliant Rapinoe goal on a free kick won by Alex Morgan, silenced a shocked French crowd. Within minutes, if not seconds, France returned to its raucous self, and once again encouraged its side with perfectly timed claps, well-orchestrated chants of “Allez, allez, allez” and searing jeers toward the U.S. players.
An hour after her first goal, Rapinoe tallied a second. The play was jump-started by Morgan and Tobin Heath, who — burdened by defensive responsibility — had otherwise slow games. The through pass from Morgan allowed Heath to play Rapinoe across the net, the sole pass completed in the penalty area by the USWNT all game. The goal, against the run of play, provided the USWNT with breathing room on a stifling hot night.
The Americans appeared to have iced the game with a third goal not long after, but an offsides call held back the potential game-sealer. The call was not reviewed by the video assistant referee (VAR).
The French, who had out-possessed, out-passed, and out-shot the Americans, finally had their moment in the 81st minute with a signature header goal from Wendie Renard off a free kick. Untracked sprinting into the box, Renard answered the crowd’s desperate pleas and was rewarded with a deafening roar.
Five minutes after, the French thought they would be awarded a penalty kick, but the potential infraction from O’Hara went once again unreviewed.
“It wasn’t like I was making my body big or anything,” O’Hara said. “You never know, though, because it’s a little sketchy sometimes but thankfully they called it the right way.”
From there, the USWNT simply stalled out the game, bleeding precious seconds off the clock with savvy play by the corner flag. Christen Press ‘10 replaced the tired legs of Rapinoe during this time, and provided the same lift to the team as the crowd’s ongoing cheer.
A crestfallen France remained on the field, and its supporters obliged, with a chilling rendition of the chants that echoed throughout the nation’s capital all night.
The Americans will take on the Lionesses in Lyon Tuesday, a rematch of a 2-2 draw earlier this year in the She Believes Cup.
Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.