Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Megan Rapinoe netted two balls, one in each half, to account for precisely one hundred percent of the American offense.
It would be enough for the USWNT to weather the storm.
Just as they did a few days before, the U.S. women scored early and toughed it out against a physical opponent who seemed determined to grind them down. Rapinoe struck first on a penalty from just outside the box after a clumsy challenge that took Alex Morgan to the turf. She sent a dangerous crossing ball though a sea of American attackers and French defenders…none of whom seemed to know where the ball actually was. Except Julie Ertz, who seemed to know as soon as it skittered under her that it was headed for goal. The French goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi never had a chance, as she set herself up for a deflection that never happened. No one seemed more surprised than Rapinoe herself as she celebrated the early lead in the fifth minute. The USWNT would hold the lead until after the half despite several good looks from the French side and a few dangerous tests for goalie Alyssa Naeher.
In the second half, France continued to see the lion’s share of the ball but come up with very few solid finishing strikes. Then, in the sixty-fifth minute Rapinoe struck again, deflating the thirty-odd thousand French fans in the stands and giving American fans a chance to catch their breath. The beautifully executed counter strike developed slowly, and Tobin Heath’s backward-drifting cross looked shaky, but she put the ball behind the defense, where only Rapinoe could run to it. Rapinoe never looked up as she, yet again, found the back of the net, becoming the first woman in FIFA World Cup history to score twice in two consecutive knockout games.
The French continued to dominate possession through the rest of the half, as the American side settled into a stiff, defensive 5-4-1 formation that proved exceptionally frustrating for Les Bleus. The French would earn some chances, but minute after minute, clearance after clearance, their hopes faded away. All that changed in the eighty-first minute as Wendie Renard used her towering height advantage to head the ball home on a beautifully designed and impossible-to-defend set piece. The goal caused an eruption in the stands and on the French bench. The host nation could feel the momentum and continued to attack in wave after wave, only to be repelled time and again.
The U.S. called on Carli Lloyd and Kristen Press to inject fresh legs late in the contest, and after an excruciating six minutes of stoppage time, the final whistle blew, deflating the French fans, and the team itself. The French, yet again, couldn’t survive the round of eight.
This was the first match in this World Cup in which the USWNT did not dominate possession. In fact, the French did, controlling the ball for over sixty percent of the game. Les Bleus also out shot the Americans, taking a whopping twenty shots through the match, though only five were on target. Compare that with the Americans who tested Sarah Bouhaddi all evening, with eight of their ten shots on the mark.
This matchup was billed as the Final before the Final, and it may well have been. The world’s number one ranked team has not been pressured that much throughout this entire World Cup.
Next up for the USWNT will be a semifinal match against another top-ranked side: England. England is also undefeated in this tournament, after dispatching Norway with style 3-0 in their quarterfinal matchup to advance.
Image Source: AP Images/Francois Mori