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‘Ridiculous’ USWNT defense was the foundation for win over France

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Megan Rapinoe scored twice, but she says the defenders behind her played the game of their lives.

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

Megan Rapinoe was the standout star of the United States’ 2–1 win over France in the World Cup quarterfinals Friday night, scoring both of her team’s goals, but the American back line’s performance as a unit was just as important to its quarterfinal victory.

“Ridiculous” is how Rapinoe described her defense in a post-match interview. She continues, “Honestly I don’t think they’ve ever played that well together as a group. They stepped their game up huge. We talked about that before the tournament, we’re going to need everyone to have those moments where they play better than they ever have, and tonight was that moment for them, they were absolutely massive.”

Rapinoe’s goal in the fifth minute set up a style of play that USWNT fans aren’t used to seeing: One where the Americans sit deep, concede possession, and don’t commit too many numbers forward on counterattacks. The roles are usually reversed, with the No. 1-ranked US team controlling the ball and trying to break down a bunkered opponent.

France had 60 percent possession and 20 shots to the USWNT’s 10, but the American defense always felt it was in control of the match.

“The pressure that we absorbed, we played a defensive formation,” USWNT center back Becky Sauerbrunn says after the match. “When you do that, you hold a lower block closer to your own goal to make it harder for them to break down, denying crosses and nice shots in front. And so as you could tell, their outside backs and their center backs had the ball a lot, and that’s just something that we wanted them to have as opposed to their attacking players.”

Sauerbrunn is right, both about who had the ball for France and the quality of Les Bleues’ shots. French central defenders Wendie Renard and Griedge Mbock Bathy completed 56 and 48 passes respectively, while defensive midfielder Élise Bussaglia had 51. France’s central attacking midfielder Gaëtane Thiney was excellent when her team could actually get her the ball, recording six passes that led directly to shots, but she only completed 24 passes in total.

The USWNT defense also rendered France’s substitutes completely ineffective. France manager Corinne Diacre tried to change the match by bringing in playmaking wingers Delphine Cascarino and Viviane Asseyi, but they did nothing. No, really, nothing. Both had zero completed crosses, zero passes leading to shots, and zero shot attempts. They completed three total passes between them.

France’s goal came off an excellent set piece routine, but that was by far its best chance of the match. Its numerous open play shots were mostly speculative long-range efforts, weak headers, or strikes hit straight into the body of an American defender. France’s expected goals tally was surprisingly low for a team that got 20 shots off.

A big part of why France was unsuccessful at creating chances was the solid performance of Crystal Dunn at left back for the USWNT. Dunn, who plays as a central attacking midfielder for her club team, has often looked out of place in defense. France, believing Dunn to be the weak spot in the American back line, tried to play through their right winger, Kadidiatou Diani, while sending right back Marion Torrent bombing forward to overload that flank.

“I’m exhausted,” Dunn says after the match. “Diani is an amazing forward and she definitely gave me a run for my money tonight. But at the end of the day, I had a lot of support, and help from my teammates every step of the way.”

Dunn adds, “There are times where, if I didn’t win a tackle, Becky Sauerbrunn was right there behind me, so I never felt like I lost anything.”

While Dunn was beaten by Diani on a few occasions, she was consistently able to use her speed to recover and get back in front, rendering the French winger completely ineffective — she finished the match with no completed crosses, no passes leading to shots, and no shots on target.

United States manager Jill Ellis is probably hoping she doesn’t have to set up her team in a deep bunker again during this World Cup. The second half was nerve-wracking for USWNT fans (and probably coaches). But Ellis’ defense impressed when faced with a new kind of challenge, proving it’s good enough to adapt to any situation.