After the U.S. women’s national team ousted Spain, four days before perhaps the most anticipated match in the history of the Women’s World Cup, Megan Rapinoe told reporters that she hoped the upcoming quarterfinal against host France would be a “total s—show circus” of a spectacle. It would become one because Rapinoe made it one.
Even before a 2-1 U.S. win Friday against France, the outspoken, expressive sparkplug of a midfielder had taken over this World Cup with her dominant play and her candid comments. She ensured that the U.S. outlasted its biggest threat in a game that lived up to the billing, complete with early fireworks, officiating controversy and late drama. Entering this tournament, the storyline was that the rest of the world — especially European powers — had made up ground against the U.S. since the Americans won in 2015. So far, that has played out, entering the U.S. semifinal Tuesday against England.
The past two World Cup finals featured the U.S. and Japan, both of which knocked out European teams in the semifinals in 2011 and 2015. But this year, Italy, Sweden and Norway pulled upsets of China, Canada and Australia, respectively. The Netherlands beat Japan, France took down Brazil, and suddenly Europe produced a record seven of the eight quarterfinalists in this tournament. Not since 1995 had the continent managed even five of the final eight.
England won’t make it easy on the U.S. The Three Lionesses are undefeated in this World Cup, with group-stage victories against Scotland, Japan and Argentina and 3-0 shutouts of Cameroon in the round of 16 and Norway in the quarterfinals. They, like many of the European squads, are fielding their strongest team of any Women’s World Cup at this tournament, according to ESPN’s Soccer Power Index. They failed to qualify for three of the first four World Cups but have reached at least the quarterfinals four straight times, the semifinals twice.
A goals-per-game average of 2.2 puts England at second in this World Cup behind the U.S., and Phil Neville’s squad has conceded the fewest goals in the tournament (one). England ranks second in expected goals per 90 minutes with 2.46, in large part because it completes passes at a tournament-best clip of 80.9 percent.
Still, FiveThirtyEight’s model gives the Americans a 67 percent chance of beating England and a 48 percent chance of repeating as champions. Their advantage comes from skilled talents like Rapinoe, whose finishing ability gave the U.S. an edge in an otherwise evenly matched game Friday.
Europe’s improvements were never clearer than in Friday’s showdown. In fact, FiveThirtyEight contributor Michael Caley’s expected goal map after the game indicated that France had an advantage, with 1.3 expected goals to 1.0 for the Americans. The French peppered the U.S. with 20 shot attempts, but in the end, just five ended up on target. The Americans, meanwhile, placed eight of their 10 attempts on goal (and could have pulled ahead 3-0 if not for a close offside call against Crystal Dunn). They even lost the possession battle for the first time since a friendly against Spain in January, a span of 14 matches. But they are the defending champions for a reason, and they are moving on.
The Americans have long embraced an attack-minded style of play built by the firepower on their front line. Youth development programs and college squads have stocked the national team with goal scorers, and the U.S. leads the World Cup in not just goals but chances (15.2) and expected goals (3.31) per 90 minutes. Rapinoe and Morgan are two of the four co-leaders for the Golden Boot award. After the U.S. lost in penalty kicks against Sweden in the 2016 Olympic quarterfinals, coach Jill Ellis doubled down on aggressiveness, switching to a 4-3-3 to move the team’s best finishers into scoring position. That leaves Rapinoe, Morgan and Tobin Heath up top, with 2015 star Carli Lloyd still available off the bench.
The interest in offensive pressure trickles down the roster. On Ellis’s top lineup, both outside backs — Dunn and Kelley O’Hara — are former forwards and winners of college soccer’s player of the year award. Dunn plays mostly midfield outside of the national team, and O’Hara was as a forward at Stanford. Ellis called Dunn “the most versatile player I’ve ever coached,” which indicates the coach’s strategy: Find the best, most versatile players, and then put them in the right positions.
Dunn, for instance, said she did not have much preparation at a new position before the World Cup. “I really got a phone call just saying, ‘Hey, you know, tomorrow’s game, I’d want you to step in and be an outside back. I’m trusting that you can do that and I know that you can,’” she told Forbes in May. “And you know, that’s all really that I needed.”
Since then, she has become one of the team’s breakout players, proving critical Friday as she quelled the French attack and possessed the ball in the final minutes. “I try not to overthink,” Dunn told reporters after the group-stage finale against Sweden. “I just think of myself as a footballer. I’m just playing and trying to impact the game from a different angle of the field.” Ellis receives plenty of questions about deploying players out of position, but the result, so far, has been a terrifying arsenal of two center backs and eight players who are threats to score or create at any moment.
Europe will keep coming for the U.S., as Spain showed in the round of 16. The Spaniards are young, improving and skilled with the ball. They played in just their second World Cup this year, and yet they advanced to the knockout stage and tested the U.S. before losing, 2-1. The Americans’ next test was even trickier, though the sharper team prevailed. “That is the most intense match I have ever been a part of,” Ellis told reporters afterward, and it certainly won’t be the last.