For three weeks and 45 games this Women’s World Cup has been a story in search of a theme, a plot in need of a twist.
There have been few heroes or villains and little surprise or drama. Even the tournament mascot has stopped showing up at games.
That will change Friday when the host French play the defending champion Americans in a quarterfinal that will end more than the tournament for the loser.
“A chance to play the host nation in a World Cup, these are why you play all these friendlies. Or train on your own for hours and hours, grinding through the rest of it so you can get to these moments,” U.S. co-captain Megan Rapinoe said Thursday.
Added teammate Tobin Heath: “This is a game we’ve been looking forward to, I guess, our whole lives.”
France, whose women’s team has never finished better than fourth in a major international event, is bidding to become the first country to own the men’s and women’s World Cups at the same time. And they’re doing it at home.
Yet in this story they’re David, taking nothing more than a slingshot and a rock into a fight with a giant.
The U.S. women are the giant. They haven’t lost a game in this tournament since 2011, have played in the last two World Cup finals and have won the tournament three times. With the exception of a six-month spell in 2015, they’ve been ranked No. 1 in the world for more than a decade.
And like Goliath, the Americans sometimes come off as both cocky and confident, which could prove fatal.
Earlier in the tournament U.S. defender Ali Krieger said she thought the U.S. had both the best- and second-best team in the World Cup, suggesting the U.S. substitutes would finish second. It was a belief several teammates echoed, and one that now has a prominent place on the French team’s bulletin board.
“If there’s one area I don’t really need to work on, it’s motivation,” French coach Corinne Diacre said through an interpreter.
The U.S. has lost just one of its last 42 matches, but that was to France in a friendly last January. And France hasn’t lost to the U.S. in nearly three years, allowing just four goals in their last five meetings.
“We are aware of their strengths but they also have shortcomings,” French captain Amandine Henry said. “And we’re going to try to make the most of them.”
The U.S. is extremely good on set pieces, for example, but that’s also France’s strength. It beat Brazil in the round of 16 when Henry volleyed in Amel Majri’s curling free kick in overtime. In its opener with South Korea, defender Wendie Renard — at the 6-foot-1, the tallest player in the tournament — headed in two goals.
Both teams are unbeaten and untied after four games, although France needed penalty kicks to beat Norway and Nigeria, and overtime to beat Brazil. The U.S. set a World Cup record with 18 goals scored — and none conceded — in its three group games and hasn’t trailed in the tournament, beating Spain in the round of 16 on two Rapinoe penalty kicks.
And there might be more than just a soccer match at stake on both sides. France is counting on a long World Cup run and the excitement that would generate to help fund a massive investment in the women’s game. The team has sold out its five games, including Friday, and is averaging more than 10 million viewers on television.
“We want to grow the attention on women’s football. We want to be the leaders,” said former World Cup star Laura Georges, now secretary general of the French soccer federation.
Matching the men as world champions would be a big step in that direction.
Megan Rapinoe of the U.S. scores her team’s second goal against Spain from the penalty spot.(Marc Atkins / Getty Images)
Megan Rapinoe is congratulated by her U.S. teammates after scoring a goal Monday at the Women’s World Cup.(Franck Fife / AFP / Getty Images)
Spain’s forward Jennifer Hermoso (L) vies with United States’ defender Kelley O’Hara during the France 2019 Women’s World Cup round of sixteen football match between Spain and USA, on June 24, 2019, at the Auguste-Delaune stadium in Reims, northern France. (Photo by Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP)LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images ** OUTS - ELSENT, FPG, CM - OUTS * NM, PH, VA if sourced by CT, LA or MoD **(Lionel Bonaventure / AFP / Getty Images)
Hungarian referee Katalin Kulcsar talks with Spain’s Leila Ouahabi, second from left, and Sandra Panos after giving the U.S. a penalty kick.(Lionel Bonaveture / AFP / Getty Images)
Mandatory Credit: Photo by TOLGA BOZOGLU/EPA-EFE/REX (10320464ag) Megan Rapinoe (R) of USA in action against Marta Corredera (L) of Spain during the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019 round of 16 soccer match between Spain and USA at Reims, France, 24 June 2019. FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019, Reims, France - 24 Jun 2019 ** Usable by LA, CT and MoD ONLY **(Tolga Bozoglu / EPA)
Megan Rapinoe, left, of the U.S. scores the go-ahead goal on a penalty kick Monday at the Women’s World Cup.(Tolga Bozoglu / EPA / REX / Shutterstock)
US supporters cheer their team during the France 2019 Women’s World Cup round of sixteen between Spain and USA in Reims, France.(Lionel Bonaventure / AFP/Getty Images)
United States’ Julie Ertz, right, jumps for the ball with Spain’s Patri Guijarro, center, and Lucia Garcia during the Women’s World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Spain and United States at Stade Auguste-Delaune in Reims, France, Monday, June 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)(Thibault Camus / Associated Press)
REIMS, FRANCE - JUNE 24: Megan Rapinoe of the USA scores her sides first goal from the penalty spot during the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Round Of 16 match between Spain and USA at Stade Auguste Delaune on June 24, 2019 in Reims, France. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images) ** OUTS - ELSENT, FPG, CM - OUTS * NM, PH, VA if sourced by CT, LA or MoD **(Robert Cianflone / Getty Images)
U.S. midfielder Julie Ertz vies with Spain’s Alexia Putellas, left, and Virgina Torrecilla on Monday at the Women’s World Cup in Reims, France.(Lionel Bonaventure / AFP / Getty Images)
Jennifer Hermoso of Spain battles for possession with Julie Ertz of the U.S.(Marc Atkins / Getty Images)
Megan Rapinoe of the U.S. after receiving a yellow card from referee Katalin Kulcsar.(Robert Cianflone / Getty Images)
Virginia Torrecilla of Spain tackles Crystal Dunn of the U.S.(Robert Cianflone / Getty Images)
U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, left, makes a save in front of Spain’s Virginia Torrecilla.(Thibault Camus / Associated Press)
U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher makes a save in front of Spain’s Alexia Putellas.(Thibault Camus / Associated Press)
Spain’s Irene Paredes, right, defends against Megan Rapinoe of the U.S.(Alessandra Tarantino / Associated Press)
Spain goalkeeper Sandra Panos makes a save in front of Megan Rapinoe, front left, of the U.S.(Thibault Camus / Associated Press)
Tobin Heath of the U.S. lies on the ground in pain Monday during the Women’s World Cup round-of-16 game against Spain.(Alessandra Tarantino / Associated Press)
Megan Rapinoe of the U.S. scores for a 1-0 lead on a penalty kick in the seventh minute.(Tolga Bozoglu / EPA / REX / Shutterstock)
Kelley O’Hara, right, of the U.S. takes on Spain’s Andrea Falcon.(Tolga Bozoglu / EPA / REX / Shutterstock)
For the U.S., the stakes might be higher. The 28 women whose names are on the gender-discrimination lawsuit against U.S. Soccer concede the best way to push their argument is on field.
Four years ago, their World Cup final against Japan drew a combined 27 million viewers on Fox and Telemundo, the largest domestic audience for a soccer match of any kind. And the team’s nine-game post-tournament victory tour did so well at the gate, the women claimed more in game receipts between 2016-2018 then the men’s team did, according to U.S. Soccer’s audited financial statements.
Losing to France in the quarterfinal would not only stall that momentum at a critical stage of the legal battle but also would mark the team’s earliest exit from a Women’s World Cup.
And that could prove a fatal blow for Jill Ellis, who will be coaching her 125th game with the national team Friday, breaking April Heinrichs’ record.
A win would make Ellis the second coach to 100 victories with the national team. A loss, her first in 12 World Cup games coupled with the quarterfinal loss in the 2016 Olympics, would make her the only coach who failed to reach the medal stand in either tournament. And those would be back to back.
“The U.S. team lives in pressure. There’s always a target on your back,” Ellis said, welcoming the challenge. “You don’t come into the U.S. program and hide in the shadows.
“Some teams will visit pressure. But we live there.”
How’s that for a story line?