The circus came to town, and it didn’t disappoint.
The United States and France, the two best teams at the 2019 Women’s World Cup, put on a show in their titanic quarterfinal clash on Friday. Intense – sometimes bordering on breakneck – right from the opening whistle, it was the perfect blend of physicality, technical skill, and nervous energy that makes any big match captivating.
The reigning World Cup champion ultimately came away with a 2-1 victory at the Parc des Princes, getting a pair of goals from Megan Rapinoe to send the French packing at the quarterfinal stage of a major competition once again, setting up a semifinal meeting with England in the process.
Here are three takeaways from an exhilarating encounter in Paris.
Rapinoe owns the spotlight
Not only did Rapinoe get the “shitshow circus” she wanted in the French capital, she was the ringmaster.
A hectic week in the buildup to Friday’s game could have derailed preparations. There was the months-old viral interview in which Rapinoe, remaining firm on the stance she has long held in relation to the current U.S. regime, said she wouldn’t visit the “f—— White House” if the USWNT won the World Cup. A response from President Donald Trump, and the whirlwind that spat produced, was inevitable.
Other players may have let the sideshow distract them. Not Rapinoe. Quite the contrary, in fact.
“She’s just a big personality, both on and off the pitch,” manager Jill Ellis said of the 33-year-old winger. “And I think she honestly thrives in these moments.”
Her two goals, a seeing-eye free-kick and an opportunistic finish inside the penalty area, powered the U.S. to victory. She’s now recorded the team’s last four goals, accounting for the entirety of her side’s scoring output in the knockout stages so far.
The bigger the stage, the brighter she shines.
“Even when we had young players come in, I always said, ‘Ask Megan about big moments’ because there’s a never-say-die attitude,” Ellis added. “She just loves and lives for those moments.”
Dunn holds her own against Diani
Coming into the match, France manager Corinne Diacre had the unenviable task of trying to find a weakness – any weakness – in the U.S. side that could be exploited.
Conventional wisdom, and some tangible evidence from the United States’ match against Sweden earlier in the tournament, suggested that could come down the right wing, where versatile attacker Crystal Dunn has been shoehorned into an unfamiliar left-back role. Explosive dribbler Kadidiatou Diani offered the ideal profile to attack Dunn; the 24-year-old is devastating in one-on-one situations and puts constant pressure on full-backs with her ability and willingness to run directly at them.
It was one area where France, in theory, had an edge, and the host nation looked to exploit it early and often.
Dunn passed the test, though. And how.
The 26-year-old was outfoxed early by the trickery of Diani but quickly recovered, got locked in, and ultimately put in a monstrous performance to help nullify France’s most credible attacking threat. Diani didn’t complete a single pass into the U.S. penalty area all match.
Neither Diani nor substitute Delphine Cascarino, who came on in the 76th minute, completed a cross or had a shot on target.
On the rare occasions that Diani got the better of her down the flank, Dunn used her incredible recovery speed to close down any potential openings. She finished the contest with six clearances, four tackles, one interception, and one blocked shot.
“Dunny, she was just on point,” Ellis said. “I thought she stepped up big time.”
Not bad for a former NWSL MVP whose career has been built on scoring and creating goals, rather than keeping them out at the other end.
“France is a top opponent and it was challenging. I’m exhausted,” Dunn admitted. “Diani is an amazing forward and she definitely gave me a run for my money tonight, but at the end of the day, I had a lot of support and help from my teammates every step of the way.”
About that …
France runs into a brick wall
Dunn’s stellar showing garnered the bulk of the praise in the aftermath of the win, and with good reason, but on the whole, the stout U.S. defense put on a masterclass in how to be positionally solid.
Prior to Wendie Renard’s consolation header with nine minutes to go, France, despite dictating play for the bulk of the contest, never consistently threatened. Les Bleues enjoyed 60 percent possession but rarely looked capable of crafting scoring chances from open play. Of their 20 shots on the day, only five were on target.
That France’s lone tally came from a set piece was telling.
“Ridiculous,” Rapinoe said of the U.S. defense after the game, according to Sports Illustrated. “They haven’t played that well, I don’t think, ever as a group. They stepped up huge.”
The Parc des Princes was shaking after the aforementioned Renard cut the deficit in half. The French players were amped up, believing a stunning late comeback could be on the cards. The Americans, typically so composed, looked surprisingly rattled for just a minute.
And yet, none of that materialized into a true opportunity; France was unable to get another sniff of Alyssa Naeher’s goal.
The U.S. regained its composure quickly and did a spectacular job killing the clock. Alex Morgan, still clearly hobbled after an injury earlier in the tournament, was particularly effective at maintaining possession deep inside the French half. It was a clinic in game management.
Veteran center-back Becky Sauerbrunn was colossal, anchoring the Americans throughout the encounter, especially when Ellis opted to flip to an ultra-defensive back-five in the second half.
Whether that approach was necessary at all is up for debate.
Ellis’ decision to bench Lindsey Horan, arguably the best midfielder alive, forced the U.S. to sit in a deep block. With Rose Lavelle struggling, the U.S. wasn’t able to control the tempo.
But that advantage in the center of the pitch never paid dividends for France, largely because Sauerbrunn and Co. erected a wall on the edge of the box. It was all surprisingly comfortable, all things considered.
“Huge defensive performance,” Rapinoe added. “It’s extremely difficult to do that, it takes so much focus and effort, to do that mentally, and just the grit that it takes from everyone in our backline. Really proud of that performance.”