Behind brilliant Hope Solo, resilient U.S. women pull out win
BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil -- Past performance is not always indicative of future results.
That is the audible fine print a disembodied voice speeds through in countless late-night television ads for investment opportunities of dubious quality. It is also one of the reasons why we love sports.
We might think we know what will happen. We might think we've seen enough to predict the future.
But we're no less foolish if we don't heed that caveat of late-night speculation.
It was certainly true Saturday evening in Belo Horizonte. To watch the first half of the Group G encounter between the United States and France was to wonder when, not if, Les Bleus would score their goal.
Then the game halted, the teams retreated to their respective locker rooms for halftime and everything changed without a ball being kicked.
The U.S. women seized control, found a goal and held on for a 1-0 win that doesn't just put them atop their group but shapes their entire path toward what they hope is a gold medal.
And the thing is, we have seen that before. For two of the best teams in the world, maybe the two best teams in the world at the moment, the games are always competitive. The results are also predictable.
"Win, lose or draw," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said, "we knew this game was going to be valuable in the takeaways."
But the United States found a way to win. Again. And France found a way not to win. Again.
Not unlike the game the two sides played in the United States earlier this year -- and not unlike a whole host of games France has played in major tournaments since emerging as a world-class team within the past decade -- Les Bleus had opportunities to take leads on an opponent they have beaten just once in their history. They stretched the United States with speed on the right flank early. They built possession through the retiring-far-too-young Louisa Cadamuro down the left side. Even without one star, Eugenie Le Sommer rested as a fitness precaution, they probed through the middle with the familiar pace and power of Marie-Laurie Delie.
It wasn't a rout or a capitulation, by any stretch, but France outplayed the United States for 45 minutes. And that isn't something that is often said about the reigning world champions.
"France is a really dynamic attack, and I think that we were struggling to find some cohesion through our midfield and really generate an attack," said center back Whitney Engen, who held against that siege in a surprise start for the injured Julie Johnston. "But as we settled down into it, I think we were able to move the ball and start to understand their positioning a little bit better, which helped us to kind of manipulate them into places we needed to put them."
Yet before they could do that, the U.S. women had to survive the first half. They did so in no small part because of the person who has played so many of them. In her 200th appearance for the national team, and again the target of a crowd eager to heckle her, Hope Solo was brilliant. If her finger grazed Wendie Renard's open set-piece header in the 16th minute, as it seemed, the deflection was just enough to send the ball off the crossbar. Even if she didn't touch it, she covered the space and made sure the ball could not slip under the crossbar.
More dazzling was the save she made against Delie minutes later. In alone on goal after holding off a defender, Delie had little angle for a clean shot because of how quickly Solo closed the space between them. Delie tried to shoot the ball between the goalkeeper's legs, but Solo reacted, any inelegance she felt in a save made by falling on the ball more than made up for by the craftsmanship of the entire sequence.
If not for Solo and a back line that bent but didn't break, France would have led. Still, Ellis said she was pleased with the first half, pleased that she felt like her team didn't let France do some of what it likes to do. The concern wasn't in what France was doing but what her team was not.
"I think at times in the first half, there were a couple of occasions when we played and we played through," Ellis said. "But for the most part, I don't think we were disciplined enough to try and commit to what we're trying to do, was to play. I think for the second half, we talked to them about making sure our back line was moving the ball, being a little bit more patient."
Patient, maybe, but the U.S. women were most of all persistent in the opening 20 minutes of the second half.
Then the moment came.
Morgan Brian picked out Tobin Heath in open space on the left side, Heath pushed toward the goal and gave herself just enough space to challenge the French goalkeeper at the near post. Sarah Bouhaddi got a hand on the ball but couldn't stop it from caroming off the post and to the feet of Lloyd. The captain scored for the sixth game in a row in a major tournament.
It was after the game earlier this year that Lloyd voiced some frustration at feeling isolated for much of the game, even on a day when Ellis was ecstatic at how her team knocked France out of its rhythm. This night, even after a first half starved for service and three offsides in quick succession early in the second half, Lloyd was right there waiting for the chance when Heath's shot bounced to her.
There was no frustration voiced after this game.
"I don't think there was anything, nothing really tactically," Lloyd said of the second-half improvement. "It was just reiterating the fact that we're good on the ball. We should have the confidence to play. We don't have to force a long ball. We can play in tight spaces; we have the players that are capable of doing that.
"So I think it was just kind of reiterating that message that, second half, let's come out and when we actually do play and knock it around, there's good things that happen. You saw that on the goal, and you saw that in the second half."
If it wasn't tactical, if it wasn't tangible, what is left but the intangible?
After the game, through a translator, French midfielder and NWSL standout Amandine Henry mentioned that France needed to continue to close the gap on the United States. But what is that gap? It isn't in technical ability. It isn't in physical ability. It certainly isn't for lack of individual skill, not on a night when French defender Wendie Renard was the best player on the field.
Earlier this week, looking ahead to the renewal of the rivalry, Megan Rapinoe talked about all of the good things France does on the soccer field (with which she is particularly acquainted after a professional stint in the country). But she came back to the fact that at some point, the French have to figure out how to score the goals to make all of that matter.
How, then, does a team do that?
"You know, a lot of it, in the biggest games, in those final moments, it is about mentality," Rapinoe said. "And it's about your gut, and it's about just not giving up ever. We could be down in the 95th minute 3-0 and we still think we're going to win. That's the mentality that we have. I don't really know how you teach that. It comes with practice, too. It comes with us winning all those games in the last few minutes. Our competitive nature in training and everything is kind of the extra piece outside of the skill and the tactics and the technique.
"I don't know how you really train that. You need to get a taste of it first."
France should win a game like this one of these days.
The United States should lose a game like this one of these days.
Both things could still happen in Brazil. Perhaps even in a rematch for gold in the Maracana.
But Saturday was not that day. Predictably, it would seem.