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The United States beat France with a defense that refused to quit

Between a setup to negate France’s attack in front of goal and do-or-die heroics, they kept Les Bleues more or less contained.

France v USA: Quarter Final - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Photo by Alex Grimm/Getty Images

The United States defeated France 2-1 in the final-before-the-final feeling game at Parc des Princes in Paris on Friday. USA’s solid defensive performance and another ‘total shitshow circus’-slash-purely jaw-dropping showing from Megan Rapinoe, means that they will now play England in the first semi final on Tuesday, July 2 in Lyon.

USA improves to 18-3-3 all-time against France, and handed the hosts their first loss in France since 2016. France’s loss also means they will not qualify for the 2020 Olympics and has now early exited their last five major tournaments.

The United States women’s soccer team started the game in a flat back four, but shifted to five in the back after taking the lead at halftime. This move, to sit back and invite France to try and play in front of them, was what helped the United States secure their spot in the FIFA Women’s World Cup semifinals.

The United States took over the match within the first few minutes courtesy of an early free kick by Rapinoe. Rapinoe’s free kick soared through traffic of United States and French players eventually sneaking it’s way past French goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi for an early 1-0 lead.

Bouhaddi is a veteran keeper for France and has been their number one in both the 2015 World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Throughout this World Cup, she had been steady and dialed in through the group stage, helping her team breeze through Group A with a perfect 4-0-0 record. Friday night was different though; Bouhaddi struggled positionally within the first few minutes and lost sight of the ball. Losing eyes on Rapinoe on a set piece is never a good idea, and just like that France trailed for the first time during this World Cup.

The funny thing is, besides the initial high press from the United States, they actually invited France to play throughout most of the game. With Alyssa Naeher in net, and the defensive unit of Crystal Dunn, Becky Sauerbrunn, Abby Dahlkemper, and Kelly O’Hara, the United States knew they were going to have their work cut out for them with France’s offense. But even with Amandine Henry and Eugenie Le Sommer running at them, the United States found a way to get the job done with very few defensive hiccups.

So what specifically did the United States do to shut down the hosts?

They won 1v1 battles (with a little bit of luck too)

Crystal Dunn and Kadidiatou Diani went at it for the full 90 minutes plus extra time. Dunn excels one-v-one because of how dynamic and light on her feet she is. Her ability to get all the way up the field and contribute offensively, and then track back and make key stops is why she’s earned and maintained an outside back starting role. She wasn’t moving up the flank as much this game mainly due to the fact the United States sat back after the 1-0 lead. This made Dunn’s job particularly interesting because it invited Diani to run at her any chance she could get. Diani tested Dunn and found ways to get past her on the endline. But, even as crafty as Diani was throughout the game her final service was poor. The United States finished the match with seven blocks to France’s two.

Up the field Alex Morgan shined in her own one-v-one against France’s Griedge Mbock Bathy. Bathy struggled to keep up with Morgan, and this became more than obvious when Bathy fouled Morgan within just a few minutes of the game. Bathy’s tug on Morgan’s arm resulted in a yellow card and a United States free kick. This free kick gave the United States the advantage after Rapinoe bent it in for the lead. So, whether it was Morgan up top baiting France’s backline into dumb fouls, or Dunn’s ability to stay tight on a quick and creative French forward, the United States’ won the one-v-one battles for the night.

A protective formation switch-up

Ellis’ decision to drop five in the back may have been a cautious move, but it worked.

France couldn’t find their way past the United States backline, whether that was by dribble or with balls over the top. Julie Ertz dropped back into the defensive line which gave the United States one more level of protection. The shape was a 5-4-1 and even though France finished the game with 20 shots to the United States’ 10 shots, only five of France’s chances were on net, compared to eight for the US.

This formation stumped France because they were pulled out of the direct, over-the-top game that they so badly wanted to play against the United States. While France had the better of the possession of the match at 60% to the United States’ 40%, it was as if every possession that France earned got choked up or simply went awry by trying to play direct. What did work was when they built from captain Wendie Renard in the back through their midfield in Amandine Henry, and then found the outside flank players to stretch the United States. Even when stretched wide, both Dunn and Kelley O’Hara were like elastic, sprinting their way back into position, making sure that even with five in the back they were shifting cohesively as a unit.

Leaders shine

Experience and leadership were another area where the United States shined on Friday night. France, since the beginning of the World Cup, had been criticized, but also highlighted for their young roster. From Bathy, to Tounkara, and Diani, much of France’s defense stems from the 2012 FIFA Under-17 World Cup Champion team. And although their youthful roster presents promising signs for the future of French women’s football, in the World Cup knockout round the United States’ experience trumped all. Just from a team perspective, the United States are unbeaten in their last 15 women’s World Cup matches (having won their last 10 consecutively.)

Alyssa Naeher had a solid performance for the United States, most notably in the 79th minute when she made a diving save to stop Le Sommer’s cracker to preserve a 2-0 lead. Naeher finished the game with four saves. She looked confident in net, and showed much more poise than her performance against Spain. Naeher never once distributed the ball dangerously like she did against Spain, and caught the ball clean on France’s few attempts on frame.

Becky Sauerbrunn had a strong performance and kept her backline together and shifting as a unit through the game’s entirety. The United States were organized and Sauerbrunn ensured that every time they moved up the field they were in a straight line, and dropped the same way. This caught France offsides on six different occasions. The only blooper defensively came off of a free kick in the 81st minute when Renard found a way to break free from the United States and head the ball home past Naeher. Ertz tried to contest Renard in the box, but Renard’s height at 6-ft-1, and just all around ability to score with her head (her fourth of the tournament), gave her side the edge in that moment.

After the game, France’s head coach Corinne Diacre spoke with Le Parisien about the result and mentioned how when you’re not your best, the United States will make you pay.

“The Americans have shown us again that it is played on details. The experience did the rest,” Diacre said.

After France got one on the board, the United States showed poise defensively and ran out the clock.

Up next, the United States will take on England in what is expected to be a game with a lot of goals. England soared over Norway 3-0 in the quarterfinals and if there was one takeaway from that performance, the Lionesses have no interest in pumping the brakes at all. It will be interesting to see what strategy defensively the United States take against England. Will they go the same high-pressure from the first whistle approach, or will they sit back a bit and see what England can really bring offensively? Let us know what you think in the comments!