The main reason the US is better than France isn’t that the US has better players, though they do. And the US certainly isn’t better than France because they have better coaching–though Corinne Diacre hardly had a game to write home about tonight.
The main reason the US is better than France is that the US players take their chances when they come, and the French players don’t.
Tonight, that was enough to make up the difference.
The US didn’t play well. In fact, for long stretches they were pretty awful. But they were good when they had to be. And they played smart. For the better part of an hour, this game was a dare. The US said to France: “prove that you can beat us.” And France couldn’t do it.
It didn’t make for an impressive showing. On the whole, France had the better possession, the better progressive movement, the better passing, the more dangerous attacks. But they never quite managed to pay off on the promise. Exciting attacks were wasted with an errant pass. Or if the pass connected, they sent in a cross when they might have found a more dangerous ball on the ground. And if they did manage to create a good chance, they failed to score it.
Meanwhile, the US created virtually nothing. They sat back and soaked up pressure, counting on the central trio of defenders–Sauerbrunn, Dahlkemper, and Ertz–to provide help where necessary, and counting on Alyssa Naeher to find the saves where needed. And it mostly worked.
One of the major themes of the game was problems with fullbacks. Crystal Dunn, on the US side, had a wretched evening, getting beaten over and over by Kadidiatou Diani–the only France player to truly show up on the night. But because Diani’s strike partners were consistently locked down, all of her incredible work ended up for naught.
For France, the fullbacks were also terrible, with Marion Torrent conceding all sorts of dangerous space on the right, and with Amel Majri consistently giving the ball away on the left.
The difference of the game: when France gave the US an opening, they buried their chances. When the US gave France a chance, they dawdled and dallied, and couldn’t find the incisive pass.
So the US won ugly. They won despite Alex Morgan being (again) an almost complete nonentity in the attack. Except that she won the free kick that led to the first goal with a brilliant run, and created the second goal with a lovely pass. They won despite Megan Rapinoe again looking a bit off the boil. Except that she scored two goals! They won despite Tobin Heath basically not turning up for the night. Except for her assist.
They won despite Rose Lavelle having her worst game in memory. They won despite Sam Mewis contributing very little. They won despite not starting Lindsey Horan for reasons that defy explanation. They won despite Crystal Dunn being exposed over and over and over.
That’s the thing about the US Women’s National Team. It may seem silly and it may be a cliche. But they know how to win. It didn’t really look that way for most of the game. They looked bewildered and befuddled, getting pushed around repeatedly by France. But then you looked at the scoreboard and remembered who was winning.
And so they’ve passed the big test. You can’t say they passed it with flying colors. But you don’t get extra points for looking good. And you don’t lose points just because you played an opponent that didn’t manage to turn up.
At the end of the day, all that actually matters is who advances and who goes home. And once again, just like the last seven World Cups, the US is advancing to the semifinals.