We watched France v USA at a friend’s house this morning, and while not quite the dramatic classic that was Brazil v USA, it did have its moments. Our main concern was stamina; while both France and the USA played full 120 minute matches plus penalty shootouts, France had the advantage of an extra day of rest. We were hoping that the Americans’ superior fitness training would pay off, but it didn’t.
The US seemed to control the match for the first 15 minutes. France was incapable of retaining their shape, which gave the US the odd opening. After the first goal at nine minutes, the Americans pulled back; I’m not sure if this was a tactical decision or simple tiredness, but France spent the next 60 minutes firmly in control, superior in technique, passing accuracy, and critically, possession. Where the French failed was in peppering Hope Solo’s goal from range, but eventually something was going to sneak through. I don’t fault the American keeper for the equalizer. Bompastor’s nice cross was directed towards Thiney, hence Solo had to concentrate on the direct threat Thiney provided. Whether Thiney missed, or as I believe, cleverly feinted, Solo couldn’t be expected to protect the far post; that’s what defenders are for in this situation. None was there, and the goal was scored. Around this point ESPN had flashed a shots on goal stat, and it was something like 26 for France to 4 for the USA, and tellingly the last American shot on goal was the Cheney goal at 9 minutes.
The US would find its way eventually, and this was a result of substitutions and a change in tactics. While Carli Lloyd’s lovely back flick to Heather O’Reilly allowed the latter to feed Cheney for the first goal, that was Lloyd’s only decent touch of the game. Replacing her with Megan Rapinoe at the 65th minute (provider of that sublime cross to Wambach against Brazil), placing Rapinoe on the left wing thus allowing Cheney to move inside along Boxx subtly changed the American’s shape and ability to go forward. Combined with forward Alex Morgan’s substitution of the perennially invisible Amy Rodriguez, suddenly the US looked like team capable of finding the opposition final third of the pitch again, even, possibly, scoring (and that they did, twice, at 80 and 82 minutes).
To my mind, Cheney and Boxx work together in central midfield than do Lloyd and Boxx; starting Rapinoe on the left wing in the final seems the wise move. Of course, she was largely invisible in the match against Sweden, and it’s plausible that the spark she added in both the Brazil and France matches was illusory, coming on as a substitute around the 60th minute against a backdrop of 21 other tired players can’t hurt, but the central midfield combination of Lloyd and Boxx doesn’t work, and their inability to retain possession and thwart the opposition did as much to make France look technically superior as the French. Something also has to be done about Amy Rodriguez. It’s not a talent, but a confidence issue, but I wouldn’t want her to start the final. Alex Morgan looked good indeed, and perhaps that’s the player who should start the final. In reality, this was probably going to be the injured Lindsay Tarpley’s role.
And what about Japan in the final? They looked very strong against the Sweden side that defeated the USA in the final group stage match, winning 3-1 (with something like 65% of possession). They finished second in their group to England, to whom they lost 0-2, but beat Mexico 4-0, and impressively, Germany 1-0 in the quarter finals. They’re ranked fourth according to FIFA. Japan have only made it out of the group stage in one World Cup (1995), losing to the US 4-0 in the quarter finals. Their Olympics record is slightly better, finishing fourth in 2008. In 2008, the US knocked Japan out in the semi finals by a score of 4-2. Two months ago, the USA and Japan played two friendlies in the US, both of which were won by the US 2-0.
While their run has been impressive (and the Americans’ uneven), I have to go with the USA to win over Japan in the final on Sunday. Note, this is not patriotic wishful thinking; in my preview of the World Cup on June 23, I predicted a Germany v Brazil final. However, I like our chances against Japan, chances that could be improved if both Rapinoe and Morgan start in place of Lloyd and Rodriguez.