USA vs. FRANCE
Women's Olympic Soccer, Rio 2016 - Group G
Estadio Mineirao -- Belo Horizonte, Brazil
August 6, 2016 - 4 pm ET
TV: NBCSN, NBC Universo, NBC Olympic Soccer Channel
A rare clash between two of the world's best unfolds at one of Brazil's historic venues on Saturday when the US women's national team face off against France in Olympic Group G play.
This isn't a make-or-break match, given that both teams comfortably won their openers and are on course for the knockout rounds. But it's always an occasion when two members of women's soccer's small elite – in this case world No. 1 vs. No. 3 – face off in a competitive match, and neither side will give an inch. It promises to be a compelling spectacle in terms of two rivals committed to high-tempo, attack-minded soccer.
Drawing first blood
Savvy, technical and stylish, France are a compelling team, and one of only two to defeat the US since the end of 2014, via a 2-0 friendly in Lorient (highlights below). The US savored taking revenge in the She Believes Cup earlier this year, however, and have defeated Les Bleues in their last two major tournament meetings (the 2012 Olympics and 2011 Women's World Cup).
It's quite possible that the knockout phase will bring about a rematch later this month, and some lineup adjustments are likely for squad management. But based on prior history, don't expect anything too cagey on Saturday.
“Honestly, France is a huge game. It would be a little bit of a lie to just say it's just another group game,” USWNT veteran Megan Rapinoe told the media this week. “They're one of the top teams in the world and someone who I think that we respect. But ultimately we need three points out of the game. That'll set us up great in the group. It's another opportunity for us to assert our dominance in this group, and in the tournament.”
With small rosters, short turnarounds and long distances between some venues, the Rio 2016 soccer tournament challenges coaches to make tough decisions about lineups, rotation and recovery. Expect at least one new face to feature on the US wings, where Tobin Heath, Crystal Dunn and young Mallory Pugh are the first three on the depth chart. An ankle knock to Pugh in the opener vs. New Zealand should tip the scales for USWNT boss Jill Ellis to start the speedy, slashing Dunn against France.
But Rapinoe remains a spectator, aside from off-field leadership (and selfie) duties, as she recovers from a quad strain and makes her way back to match fitness after last winter's serious knee injury. She appears destined for a super sub role in the knockout stages and remains one of her team's most influential personalities.
Up front, Alex Morgan and de facto second striker Carli Lloyd look like Ellis' firm favorites, though she has admirable options in the engine room. Allie Long and Morgan Brian started on Wednesday while Lindsey Horan came off the bench, and two of those three names will be penciled in for Saturday.
Horan might have the X-factor in this call: She moved to France at age 18 to sign a reported six-figure contract with Paris Saint-Germain, the first US women's player to bypass college and go straight into the pros, spending three-and-a-half years with the Parisian giants before returning home to NWSL this season.
With a skillful squad that aptly represents their nation's diversity, France have made their team a leading front in the growth of the women's game in Europe. Playmaker Louisa Necib (pictured above) & Co. have given global audiences more than their share of riveting occasions in big events. And a country that explicitly discouraged its girls from playing the sport until quite recently is now home to two of the world's biggest women's club teams (Olympique Lyon and PSG).
But Les Bleues have never won the big one. As far as they've climbed, they have yet to lift a major trophy, mainly because they've yet to conquer the two entrenched powers ahead of them: Germany and the US. And it's starting to hurt.
“Technically, possession, I think we are pretty good,” long-serving France midfielder Camille Abily told ESPNW this week. “It's our strength, but it needs now to be maybe better – well, for sure – in front of the goal. To be more killer, you know.
“It's great to keep the ball, to play well, but it misses something.”
A win over the USA would be a priceless boost for a team agonizingly close to a breakthrough.