USWNT hardly home free at Women's World Cup despite eliminating France

Yahoo Sports

Being cocky about the United States women’s national team has become almost as popular as the national team itself.

After all, the dominant storyline over the last week, in the run-up to the American women facing easily their toughest challenge yet at this Women’s World Cup, in the form of a quarterfinal with co-favorites and hosts France, was whether the team would visit the White House …

… when it won the World Cup.

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Assuming it won the World Cup.

Never mind that before winning it in 2015, the American women had needed 16 years to summit the international women’s game again. Never mind that the women’s game is coming on so quickly that there’s a plainly visible uptick in the level with every successive World Cup.

The question, evidently, had been asked of the players as early as January, when the now-infamous Megan Rapinoe video (in which she emphasized her disinterest in a visit with President Trump with an instantly overblown expletive) was actually shot. And this whole time, the American women were careful to point out they would have to get through seven games first.

The expectation – the assumption, really – that they would win a second straight World Cup, and a record-extending fourth overall, wasn’t so much theirs as their country’s. The hubris was a national thing.

Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn and the USWNT will celebrate tonight, but then the focus goes right back to the tough games still ahead. (AP)
Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn and the USWNT will celebrate tonight, but then the focus goes right back to the tough games still ahead. (AP)

Then again, U.S. Soccer didn’t exactly downplay the expectations with its #TourDeFour social media campaign, referring to that fourth title. Neither did the team exactly dismantle that belief in its infallibility by resting almost all its regulars in only its second group-stage game. Or, in the view of many, benching its best midfielder – Lindsey Horan – once the knockout stages began. And maybe Spain was underappreciated a tad before the relative newcomers to the global stage gave the Americans a tough game in the round of 16, won only by a pair of Rapinoe penalty kicks.

The same Rapinoe who drew the ire of her president. The same Rapinoe who also scored both goals against France on Friday, sending the Americans into the semifinals for the eighth time in eight World Cups with a 2-1 victory. Her team suffered in the heat and humidity against an opponent that dominated possession and momentum for much of the game, that forced the Americans to absorb endless pressure and stumble through much of the second half with a five-woman back line, that was beaten on a pair of counterattacks, that was a denied a credible penalty kick when the ball struck Kelley O’Hara’s arm in the 86th minute.

But all that will be forgotten if the Americans defend their world title. Just as we’ve mostly forgotten that the Americans trudged through the 2015 World Cup, eking out results unconvincingly before catching fire in the semifinals and laying waste to Japan in the final. We’ll just stop thinking about the France game, about that match that could so easily have slipped away, had Les Bleues not run out of time.

“All of us knew we had to play our roles to our best ability,” right back Crystal Dunn said after the match, “and at the end of the day, if we were to hoist the trophy, no one's going to remember how we played. We're just going to remember that we fought it out and we won the game.”

The fresh assumption that the U.S. is home free, however, now that mighty France has been slayed, barely, is a reckless one. Surely, the hubris will only bloat further from here on out. But if this World Cup has taught us one thing, it’s that the margin between the long-time top-ranked team and the rest of the world has shrunk to its smallest margin ever.

England awaits in the semifinal, after all. And if France’s Kadi Diani gave the American left flank fits, England’s double threat of Nikita Parris and Lucy Bronze will be that much more to handle. The Lionesses are on a torrid run through this tournament and claimed the SheBelieves Cup on American soil earlier this year, lest you forget.

Alex Morgan and the USWNT didn't trip up vs. France, but England won't be a slouch either. (AP)
Alex Morgan and the USWNT didn't trip up vs. France, but England won't be a slouch either. (AP)

Then, if the U.S. survives that, Germany, with all its experience and attacking talent, may well await in the final. Or it could be Sweden, which knows the Americans so well and knocked them out of the Rio Olympics in the quarterfinals with its impeccable organization. Or maybe it’s the upstart Netherlands, the European champions. Italy, possibly?

But there we go again: the final. The semifinal comes first.

England. The third-ranked team in the world – higher than France, by the way.

The Americans aren’t across the finish line yet. The next two games might prove tougher still than the bout with the spirited French, who on many different days could have won that game outright, who perhaps should have even won it on Friday, had they been a little more diligent with their chances.

Yet the nation will go on acting as if it’s all an inevitability, contemplating just how and when the World Cup should be celebrated. That’s the impossible position the American women find themselves in. That’s the heavy hubris they carry on their shoulders.

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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