World Cup: USA, France set to kick off game of the summer

If you’re a casual World Cup watcher, you may not have been previously aware of the seemingly inevitable collision course that France and the U.S. have been on for months. The two sides will meet Friday in Paris in the Women’s World Cup quarterfinals in what is definitively the game of the tournament and may well decide not just the eventual winner, but the standard-bearer in the sport in 2020 and beyond.

But Friday’s heavyweight tilt has been six months in the making, ever since the draws came out back in December. If the winners of Group A and Group F each survived their round of 16 matchups, they would meet in Paris on June 28.

Those group winners always figured to be France and the U.S. Women’s National Team, respectively; they would be heavy favorites in their opening knockout games, as well.

And now, here we are, with the two sides squaring off at 3 p.m. Friday at the Parc de Princes.

Not that both teams sailed through their last games, mind you. It took France an extra 30 minutes to finally put away a very game Brazil squad that very nearly took the lead more than 100 minutes into the match.

Just a couple minutes later, Amandine Henry bailed out the French with the goal that would put them in front for good.

And while the U.S. will have one fewer day of rest heading into Friday — where the temperature should reach the 90s — the extra time France needed to get through should wipe out any recovery advantage.

The U.S., meanwhile, has faced a step up in competition at every game since their raucous 13-0 opening win over Thailand. Their strikers were turned away at the doorstep a handful of times against Chile; they methodically outplayed Sweden to a 2-0 final; but they were truly tested against a much more physical Spanish side that, but for a couple debatable penalty calls, may well have stunned them and knocked them out of the tournament.

Though Megan Rapinoe slotted home both those penalty kicks in a 2-1 win, the American attack looked much less fluid. The Americans out-possessed the Spanish 54-46, but their 12-5 advantage in shots belies the fact that, outside of the two penalties, they only put one on goal.

Alex Morgan, who scored five goals in the opening romp, hasn’t found the back of the net since, and clearly was not 100% before she was dumped unceremoniously to the turf a half-dozen times by Spain’s aggressive defense.

In a game that was fairly evenly played, one statistic stood out: Spain’s 17 fouls to the USWNT’s five.

Will that inspire France to try a similar approach? Eugenie Le Sommer and Wendie Renard are both sitting on a yellow card from earlier in the tournament, and picking up another would result in them missing the semifinal. France will have to weigh how aggressive to be, in light of Spain’s near upset.

For head coach Jill Ellis and the USWNT, there will be questions of whether or not to make changes up front, perhaps bringing erstwhile starters off the bench instead.

With the embarrassment of riches — Christen Press and Mallory Pugh would start for likely any other team in the world, as would Carli Lloyd, even at 36 — Ellis will be in charge of finding the right combination, both at kick and as the game progresses, to take full advantage.

And, with a French attack more dangerous than that of any team the U.S. has faced so far, there’s every reason to believe they’ll need multiple goals.

The USWNT is 17-3-3 against France all-time, but that belies the more recent history. Since the 2012 Olympics, the U.S. is just 4-3-2, including the most recent contest, a 3-1 loss Jan. 19 in Le Havre. That was a friendly, without the full arsenal of players, but it underscores that any advantage the Americans have going in is slight.

And while the USWNT has enjoyed vocal fan support all tournament to date, that figures to change with the home country playing in its capital.

So, buckle up, and find yourself somewhere to be at 3 p.m. Friday. No matter how it turns out when the final whistle blows, it should be a wild ride.

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