France or the U.S. in the Women's World Cup quarterfinals? We debate
Since the Women's World Cup draw last December, the U.S. women and France have been on a collision course to clash in Friday's quarterfinals (9 p.m. local time, 3 p.m. ET). It's the defending World Cup champ against the host, the No. 1 team in the world versus the co-favorite to win it all.
So what are the X factors and key players that will most impact their match at Parc des Princes in Paris? ESPN UK's Tom Hamilton, ESPN FC's Julien Laurens, ESPN Brasil's Natalie Gedra and ESPN's Sam Borden, Graham Hays and Alyssa Roenigk -- all of whom are on the ground in France -- tackle the tough questions.
Which team is under more pressure: France at home or the U.S. women facing a potential second consecutive quarterfinal exit in a major tournament?
Hays: The opportunity is greater for France. Television numbers for the host's group games cooled only slightly from the record-smashing opening game. And while on the ground, it doesn't always feel like World Cup fever is sweeping the land yet. The event and the French team have very visible presences. But the French can rationalize a loss to the defending champion and No. 1 team in the world, especially a valiant loss. For the United States, in such a crowded sports landscape and with how invested members of the team are in using their platform for advocacy, bowing out before the semifinals of a major event again would be costly on and off the field.
Roenigk: The U.S. women. They're the tournament favorites, the defending champions, the top-ranked team in the world and, yes, the team is still recovering from the sting of the Rio Olympics. Anything less than a World Cup win will be seen as a failure.
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Laurens: The pressure has to mostly be on the defending champions, the U.S. This is the best team in the world right now so being knocked out at this stage would be a failure, especially after losing in the quarters in the 2016 Olympics. France is also under pressure because a loss in the quarters would be disappointing. However, there would be no shame in losing against this impressive American side.
Borden: France. In addition to playing at home and trying to follow up the championship performance the team's colleagues turned in at the men's World Cup last summer, a loss to the United States also means the France women's team can't qualify for the Olympics next summer since the top three European finishers at the World Cup get the Olympic spots. With seven European teams in these quarterfinals, this match is, in effect, a double-elimination game for France.
Hamilton: Great question. There are so many subplots to this match, but the pressure is more on the U.S. France has had a mediocre tournament so far, and its home support will be demanding a win, even though this team is the underdog. The U.S. started this World Cup in dominant fashion, and the world expects it to end up winning the tournament, so the pressure is on them to deliver.
Gedra: France, for sure. The French people are very much involved with the tournament, and they were not expecting to face that much difficulty as they did against Brazil. The French are expecting not only a good performance, but a win.
Which players are key for France and the United States?
Roenigk: The U.S. front line, specifically Alex Morgan, who has been largely absent since her record-tying, five-goal onslaught against Thailand, and has drawn more attention -- and more penalties -- than anyone on the U.S. roster. On the flip side, center back Wendie Renard (France's leading goal scorer this tournament) and the French defense will be charged with stopping a fired-up American side. Aiding France? An extra day of rest since its round of 16 match.
Hays: Beyond the obvious suspects, what does France coach Corinne Diacre do with Gaetane Thiney? The veteran who resurrected her international career after falling out of favor with previous regimes has been a mainstay for Diacre, but she didn't start against Brazil when the manager changed formations to get more speed on the flanks. Midfield is also an area to watch for the Americans, especially Lindsey Horan and Julie Ertz. The United States missed Horan when she didn't start against Spain but will need her ability to conduct the attack while maintaining a physical presence against the French. And it's not a coincidence that Ertz didn't play in a 3-0 loss to France in 2017 or the 3-1 loss earlier this year. She's the best bet to break up French rhythm.
Borden: Renard having a strong game is critical if France is going to control the U.S. attack, and she's a threat on set pieces that the Americans have to be constantly monitoring. Kadidiatou Diani has had an incredible motor in the French midfield and can do damage if the U.S. slacks. For the United States, Horan has the ability to break through what will probably be a physical game and impose herself, while goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and defender Becky Sauerbrunn have to bounce back from a combined bad mistake against Spain to be at their peaks.
Hamilton: Eugenie Le Sommer has to deliver for France but the key player will be Amandine Henry. The captain needs to ensure her team remains unwaveringly focused for 90-plus minutes if France is to knock over the U.S. And for the world champions, the Americans need goalkeeper Naeher to put in a near faultless performance. She made an error against Spain, which led to a goal in the U.S.' 2-1 win. She cannot let the same happen against France.
Laurens: For France, Sarah Bouhaddi will have a huge role to play in this game. So far, the defense has been quite solid for Les Bleues, but Bouhaddi will get properly tested Friday by the Americans. And she will have to have the game of her life for France to be able to go through. Henry will be key in midfield against the energy and movement of the U.S. midfielders. Up front, this is a game for Le Sommer to shine. Even on the left-hand side, she has to be effective and decisive. For the U.S., Ertz is the key. She is the brains, the power and the heart of this team. If she bosses the midfield, the Americans will win. The front three will obviously have a huge role to play too. Sauerbrunn, who could be the weakest link in this team, will have to step up.
Gedra: Henry showed she can make a difference with her quality and experience. And Le Sommer can create a lot of trouble as an aggressive winger. That is why, besides the big stars, a good defensive performance from the U.S. will be key.
Which part of each team's game will their opponent have to prepare for most?
Borden: The U.S. women have to be ready for an even more physical game than the one they endured against Spain, particularly because France is even more capable of turning turnovers into real chances. France will have to keep up with the Americans' speed and relentless drive, which will be made even tougher by the expected heatwave -- the United States has more players who are accustomed to playing in oppressive temperatures than does France. If they have to chase the game, that will be a factor.
Laurens: Both teams know each other so well. France has to match (or try to at least) the U.S.' intensity. The French know how quickly the Americans attack and push forward, how much the midfielders press, how high the full backs play. So they will have to stay well organized and disciplined while keeping the ball as much as possible. On the other hand, the Americans will have seen France's potential on set pieces. But also the mental strength of this team. The U.S. is in for a battle on Friday and they have to get ready for it.
Hays: A strong case can be made for set pieces in both cases. Renard is unique in the problems she creates because of her height and agility on set pieces. There are a lot of reasons the United States might keep Sam Mewis in the starting lineup, but her height in defending set pieces should be near the top of the list. But as Sweden's coach said, the U.S. women might have the biggest binder of set plays in the world, so France must also keep to a minimum the free kicks and corner kicks it gives away. The United States also has struggled for years, and through a variety of outside backs and formations, to deal with French speed on the flanks.
Gedra: The French attack makes fast transitions, so the U.S. needs to be aware of that. As for France, it's facing the team that shows the highest level of sophistication in this WWC. The U.S. has variations and can be patient with the ball. Diacre will have to prepare the team for that.
Roenigk: For the U.S. women, it's depth and a bench that forward Megan Rapinoe has called "the deepest we've ever had" -- which has allowed coach Jill Ellis to rotate and rest her starters, as planned. France will rely on its physical defense, technical ability and a mentally tough team that knows how to win. Seven players on Les Bleus also star for Lyon, which has won the Women's Champions League six times.
Hamilton: Both teams will be on red alert over their opponent's attack. France is likely to focus on its play down the flanks with Diani a key outlet on their right; Rapinoe is going to be fired up for the Americans. But with two offensive teams, there is going to be plenty of space on the counterattack, so expect to see the U.S.' two attacking full backs suddenly spring into action, while France will be looking for opportunities to return favor.
Which team has the edge in goal?
Borden: Even before Monday's mishap, Naeher was more of a liability than Bouhaddi. While Naeher is a World Cup rookie, Bouhaddi has been France's No. 1 since the 2015 World Cup. She won't be cowed by the pressure Friday night.
Roenigk: Naeher will learn from an early mistake against Spain and prove herself to be not only worthy of this gig, but one of the best in the world.
Hays: Some American fans will worry because they haven't seen Naeher in a game like this. Some French fans might worry because they have seen Bouhaddi. Most of the time, Bouhaddi is a wonderful goalkeeper. She's athletic, aggressive and experienced. Her ability to play long passes jump-starts the attack, even if she tends to linger with the ball in her hands well beyond what the rules allow. But for just about her entire international career, Bouhaddi has had one or two moments during a game -- coming out rashly, playing the ball into traffic, etc. -- that scare her own fans to death. Both sides might be white-knuckling this game.
Laurens: Bouhaddi has the edge. She has a lot of experience. She has played this kind of game before, at the World Cup, at the Olympics, at the Euros. She has won six Champions League titles. Also, she has played with Morgan and Rapinoe at Lyon. She knows them very well. On the other hand, this is all new for Naeher. She has waited many years for this chance but she is inexperienced. I think the pressure can get to her.
Hamilton: The error against Spain aside, Naeher is the more complete goalkeeper than her counterpart Bouhaddi. But Bouhaddi's distribution is second to none in this World Cup.
How much does the recent history in the series (3-3-2 since 2014) matter?
Laurens: Even if every game is different, I think it is important for the French to know they have beaten the U.S. before, that they know how to beat them and that they can do it again. Psychologically, they don't fear the U.S. because of some of the the recent French success. There are a lot of things the French admire about this American side: the mentality, the power, the talent, the self belief. In many ways, this France side wants to be like this U.S. side. And beating them would be like the apprentice beating the master. However, I don't think the U.S. cares too much about the past against the French though. They are so focused, driven and ambitious.
Hays: It's everything. Nothing better underscores France's growth than the fact no team in the world has given the U.S. such consistent fits in recent years. France shut out the United States while scoring multiple goals twice since 2015. The last team to do that even once, other than France, was Norway more than a decade ago. And that doesn't even count France's 3-1 win earlier this year, at the start of the U.S. preseason. The French ability to match the Americans athlete for athlete, giving away little in fitness, confounds a team used to clear advantages there.
Roenigk: History matters to journalists, statisticians and commentators and is a lot of fun to discuss prematch and postmatch. But during those 90 minutes Friday night, past performances mean nothing.
Borden: Not much. At this level, the top women's teams face each other often enough that there never figured to be many secrets. The question is which team executes better? Neither was particularly impressive in the round of 16, but looking at the tournament as a whole, the U.S. women have probably been a touch sharper.
Hamilton: It means very little. This is knockout football in the Women's World Cup in Paris, in front of the Tricolore, with La Marseillaise ringing from the stands, with pockets of stars and stripes, with the backdrop of the USWNT's battle for pay equality, with France hoping to inspire a nation. It is going to be epic.
Gedra: Not much, because the circumstances are different this time: France is playing a World Cup quarterfinals at home with a loud supporting crowd and high expectations. That changes the scenario compared to previous head-to-heads.
Borden: In a hard-fought, physical game, the U.S. women get a second-half goal from Horan to just take it 2-1.
Hays: The crowd in the stadium might be split, but the streets of Paris will be full of the Tricolore after France wins a thriller.
Roenigk: The United States advances to the semifinals 2-1 over Les Bleus in extra time.
Hamilton: Expect extra time, and for Rapinoe to win it on a penalty. The U.S. wins 2-1.
Laurens: France will win 1-0.
Gedra: It's a tight match and the U.S. squeezes by France 2-1.