The United States Women’s National Team take on their French counterparts tomorrow in Le Havre, just 45 minutes from the beaches of Normandy. They arrive in France as the #1 team in the world, and clear favorites to take home the World Cup this summer. But to do so, they’ll have to get past a French team fighting on home soil.
If everything goes according to plan, the US and France are likely to face off in the quarterfinal this summer. Everyone is understandably circumspect about the chance, since no one wants to predict winning their group and thereby tempt the wrath of the whatever from high atop the thing. But they certainly know what’s at stake.
So as these two teams face off tomorrow, here are three big things to watch for:
More of the Same from the US
The US motto at the moment seems to be: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. For Ellis, the past year has been spent on developing and locking down a system, which is all about “how your players understand their roles and their positions within their roles—having a clear idea of how do we want to score goals, how are we going to defend.” But now, she says, the period for big picture adjustments is over, and the focus is mostly on “fine-tuning the pieces in terms of training.”
That means the team will almost certainly play their now-standard 4-3-3 cum 3-4-3, with Crystal Dunn as an aggressive attacking fullback, with a more defensively-minded companion at right back. They’ll continue to emphasize width in the attack, and will work hard to build from the back. They’ll rely on their attackers to harass the dangerous French attack through aggressive pressing, and hope to avoid the sort of defensive blunders that have been the only real downside over the last 18 months of dominance.
That doesn’t mean everything is settled. According to her, the January camp is still essentially a preseason, where the team can lay foundation for the rest of the year. So it’s still not so late that we shouldn’t expect a few more twists and turns. But for the most part, the team is settled, the style is set, and the major roster questions have been answered. What questions remain are primarily on the margins.
A Big Crowd
The stadium at Le Havre is usually 2/3 empty when their men’s club side plays here. But tomorrow it should be a packed crowd.
French coach Corinne Diacre says she’s thrilled to be playing for a full crowd, and thinks it’s a great sign that excitement is building around the team. But, she adds, “it’s also a pity we had to wait until 2019 for full stadiums.”
That’s a reminder that France hasn’t always drawn big for their home matches, but the excitement and anticipation of the upcoming World Cup—and the opportunity to see them play the US—seems to have done the trick. It’s a great sign for this summer, and a demonstration that big ticket sales aren’t entirely a feature of Americans buying up packages.
This should be a rollicking crowd, and it will be a great test of how both teams play in front of a passionate French audience.
A Friendly That Really Matters
Friendlies usually aren’t that important. This one is a big exception.
For France, this could be a crucial chance to demonstrate that they really belong in the conversation as a tournament favorite. According to Diacre, this game is an important test—a high profile game against the toughest competition, which can provide a real benchmark for what this France team should expect to accomplish. She spoke to the media at a pre-game press conference and said, “Playing against the USA is a great opportunity. It’s always very exciting to play against a nation that’s so dominant in women’s football. It’s also a great opportunity for us to check where we are standing. We’ll see tomorrow how it goes and what we can learn.”
It’s also a critical moment in which they can try to capitalize on the growing buzz around the team. A famous victory in Le Havre tomorrow could provide some real momentum to help them build toward a crescendo this summer. That sort of psychological edge is particularly important given where the tournament will be played. It also has escaped precisely no one that the French men won their first World Cup as hosts in 1998, before winning against last summer. For many, it would provide the perfect symmetry if the women take their own first title on home soil and in the process unite the crowns for the first time.
In Diacre’s comments, you can read a delicate balancing act. She both wants to recognize the symbolic importance of the match and communicate just how seriously they will take the event, while still tamping down expectations a bit. As she noted, the team “isn’t at their top level of physicality yet,” so even while they’ll want to show a lot tomorrow, they also don’t want this to treated as a literal prequel to the eventual World Cup showdown.
On the other side, the US is currently riding high and will want to retain that sense of earned arrogance. Asked at the presser whether she might play things cagey, holding back some key cards lest she reveal too much to a future opponent, Ellis was gently dismissive. “We’re going to go out and play and from there, we’re going to take good lessons and good experiences to help us continue to get better. And there’s no better experience than this. This is one of the favorites, home team. It’s everything as a coach you want.” In her view, playing top teams is the most important way to prepare for a successful World Cup, and there’s no better place to get it started than here, facing off against their top competition and seeing who emerges on top.
And the players seem to agree. You can see it in the insouciance with which they approach the challenge. Asked who is the better team, for example, Megan Rapinoe gave a sly grin and said, “Well, the rankings would say it’s us,” before retreating to a more diplomatic statement that France is a top team and they’ll never take anything for granted.
What becomes clear in all this is the reality of two huge teams facing off less than six months before the upcoming World Cup final. Both can picture themselves holding that trophy aloft, and both know that they’ll very likely have to go through the other to do so.
Schedule, TV, and livestream info
USA vs France
Saturday, January 19
2:30 PM ET / 11:30 AM PT
Le Havre, France
Streaming with Fubo