PARIS — It’s been a major talking point ever since the Women’s World Cup draw back in December. If the United States wins its first-round group here in France, and the host nation tops their own foursome, the consensus best two teams in the competition could meet in a do-or-die quarterfinal later this month in the City of Light.
The possibility of such an encounter well before the final has prompted many to wonder if the French and American teams might strategically opt to not go all-out in the group stage, perhaps setting up an easier path to the July 7 final in Lyon.
We already know the former’s approach. After beating South Korea and Norway, Les Bleues would have to implode spectacularly against Nigeria not to win Group A. What will the U.S. do? A day before the Americans’ second match against Chile (12 p.m. ET, FOX), coach Jill Ellis left no doubt about where the favorites stand.
“I struggle to tell my team not to tackle in training the day before,” Ellis said during Saturday’s pre-match media conference. “I think at this point it’s making sure your focus is on yourself and your performance and you put yourself in the best position to advance in this tournament. For us, it’s making sure that we play as well as we possibly can and win the game.”
That’s not to say Ellis wont make any changes to the 11 that routed the Thais. While she brushed off a question about how many to expect – “You’ll find out tomorrow when the lineups come out, won’t you?” she half-joked with a journalist – she also talked up her side’s otherworldly depth.
“We want to make this a long tournament,” Ellis said. “To do that, we certainly know it’s going to take a lot of physical effort and output from every single one of those players.”
Whoever takes the field on Sunday, the U.S. is in a great spot. The defending champions are brimming with confidence after their emphatic opening victory, in which seven different women found the net. Four of those scorers were making their World Cup debut. Now those first-match jitters are out of the way. That’s bad news for a Chile team that lost its only two meetings against the Yanks by a combined 7-0 scoreline in back-to-back friendlies last year.
The Chileans are well aware of what they’re up against.
“They don’t give you much time to think on your feet,” said La Roja goalkeeper Christiane Endler, a former NCAA soccer standout at the University of South Florida. “We learned that basically two seconds of not concentrating on what you’re doing can produce a counterattack and a goal.”
And according to Ellis, the U.S. is a far more cohesive and focused unit now than it was then. “The mindset of the players, you can see and difference, you can feel a difference,” Ellis said, “in terms of confidence and what they’re capable of.”
To a large degree, Ellis is just trying to stay out of their way.
“My job right now is to obviously prepare them for games, but it’s also to keep them in a good space,” she said. “That’s everything from how we are in training, to the things that we do, to meetings, to just making sure they have time with their families. Everything kind of has to come together in terms of making sure that the mindset is right.
“It’s about healthy players. And a very good mindset is a big part of teams who win championships.”
The U.S. seems to have come out of the Thailand match unscathed. All 23 players trained on Saturday afternoon at a facility on the outskirts of town. While forward Christen Press trained on her own at the beginning of practice, a team spokesman insisted that she was fine.
Another advantage the Americans will have on Sunday is a large contingent of their own fans. Paris is overrun by U.S. tourists every summer whether there’s a World Cup or not, but this year many of them will be in attendance at the match; only single tickets remain for sale online at Parc des Princes, Paris Saint-Germain’s home stadium which seats almost 48,000.
“The fans that have travelled and what they create for us in terms of support for our players is magnificent, they had to travel a long way and I’m sure at large expense,” Ellis said.
“I’m sure they’ll get their money’s worth.”
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