The cliche is “defense wins championships” and it was the much-maligned American defense which held up and allowed the U.S. to defeat France, 2-1, in an intense quarterfinal in Paris in what could be the deciding game of the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Megan Rapinoe scored a stunning goal in the fifth minute on a free kick that curved through the legs of at least two players and flew into the French net for a 1-0 lead that looked like it might be the only score of the game.
The French attack, which had been effective in each of its games through the tournament, was frustrated by a close, organized U.S. defense that had all 11 players in front of the ball on many plays. Even though the French had most of the possession, they could not finish and, in fact, all six of its first-half shots were away from the U.S. goal.
The U.S. started hot in the second half, with shows from Sam Mewis, then Tobin Heath and then Alex Morgan off of a corner, but the French established control again and played most of the half in the U.S. end. But they couldn’t finish.
In the 65th minute, a Morgan pass from midfield found Heath running free on the right sideline and her cross to the center of the box whizzed by Mewis and there was Rapinoe again, scoring with a laser in the 65th minute for a 2-0 lead.
Surely, the game was over, right? It looked like it in the 75th minute, when Heath scored, but the U.S. was offsides.
Finally, the French connected on a free kick which was perfectly placed for 6-1 Wendie Renard to head the ball past U.S. keeper Alyssa Naeher to cut the lead to 2-1. But the remaining 20 minutes – including stoppage time – were a continued exercise in frustration for the French, thanks to the tight American defense and miss after miss on connecting passes and free kicks.
France had a 60-40 edge in possession and a 20-10 edge on shots, but only five were on target vs. eight for the U.S. It is true that the French were not sharp in the attacking area, but the U.S. defense, which had struggled with its defense all during the run-up to the World Cup, played brilliantly on the flanks, especially Kelley O’Hara and Crystal Dunn, whose speed was key in stopping promising attacks, especially down the left side.
The game drew the largest crowd of the tournament so far, with 45,995 packed into the Parc des Princes in Paris.
The win gets the U.S. a date on Tuesday with England, which looked great in its 3-0 win over Norway yesterday, and preserves the American streak of making the semifinals in all eight Women’s World Cups.
The other two semifinals will be played tomorrow, with Italy and the Netherlands in the first game and Germany and Sweden in the second.
More on the tournament here.