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In 2018, a fairly meaningless year, the United States women’s national team didn’t lose a single of its 20 games, tying just twice. Along the way, it won three tournaments.
In 2019, a Women’s World Cup year, the Americans kicked off their season in a disheveling 3-1 loss to France on Saturday, ending a 28-game run without a defeat, dating back to July 27, 2017. It had been almost two years since the Yanks had lost by multiple goals.
This summer, the USA returns to France to defend its world title, claimed in Canada back in 2015. And in order to prepare optimally, head coach Jill Ellis and her squad chose to begin this year in the most challenging way possible.
France, after all, is ranked third in the world – behind Germany and the perennially first-placed U.S. What’s more, its players are in the middle of their season in the very competitive French league. They played at home, in front of a sold-out stadium of 25,000 in Le Havre, and hadn’t lost since last March themselves. And the Americans, who have been getting their legs back under them in their January camp in Portugal, hadn’t played a game in more than two months. The National Women’s Soccer League ended four months ago.
A further disclaimer: Whereas the French fielded their best team, the U.S. lineup wasn’t entirely first-rate. But then it was pretty close. And the game really was not.
The French will seek to become the first nation to win the men’s and Women’s World Cup in back-to-back summers and they’ve been due for a breakthrough after reaching at least the quarterfinals in every major tournament since 2009. But the U.S. has historically had France’s number.
On Saturday, it didn’t. A much sharper French team absorbed pressure and created endless major chances on the break as the U.S. struggled to set the pace high enough to pick Les Bleues apart. Meanwhile, some key Americans like playmaker Lindsey Horan and winger Mallory Pugh – until she got a late consolation goal – were off their game, while striker Alex Morgan was left isolated up front, starved for accurate service.
The French, for their part, were diligent with their chances. In just the ninth minute, Delphine Cascarino tried to beat Emily Fox on speed. Fox was quicker but then much too casual and was dispossessed again. Cascarino cut back for Kadidiatou Diani, who finished cleanly for the first of her two goals.
Diani would get the other before the hour, when she was played through the American back line, which seemed to lumber on the day, and beat Alyssa Naeher with a magnificent chip from a dastardly angle.
Finally, in the 78th minute, 20-year-old Marie-Antoinette Katoto was sent through on a long ball, into a big gap between the American defenders. She rounded the stranded Naeher and rolled in a third.
Pugh’s sneaky roller in injury time, to make the score slightly more respectable, did little to change the impression that France had been by far the better team.
Because the disparity in quality of the chances the two sides created was such that you could hardly state that France’s win was undeserved.
So now what?
Should the Americans panic about the big tournament this summer? They haven’t played in a significant competition since the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where they were upset by Sweden on penalties in the quarterfinals, making for their earliest elimination at a major tournament in the program’s history. All of those interceding years of hammering mostly underwhelming opponents in friendlies, or winning tournaments U.S. Soccer put on itself, are fairly inconsequential when the World Cup kicks off anew.
But then this was not a game played on even terms. Plainly, the difference between in-season form and a team getting its first competitive touches in several months is big. Going into this game, it was believed that Ellis was putting the finishing touches on a team favored to repeat as world champions. It seemed to be down to deciding who would fill out the bench, with the starting lineup all but decided. These months were all just a matter of fitness and sharpness.
None of those things have necessarily changed. One team was overmatched by the other not because that team is so much stronger, but because one was much more ready for the game.
After the game, Ellis gathered her team into a large huddle and, well, who knows what she said? She didn’t seem flustered though. She didn’t look alarmed. It was a chance to remind her team that years of domination don’t count for anything when the opening whistle rings out for a World Cup game.
Sometimes losses lay the groundwork for victory.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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