After getting its attempt to win a fourth successive Olympic gold off to a winning start against New Zealand, the United States women’s soccer team will face a major step up when taking on the world’s No. 3-ranked team France in Belo Horizonte. With the top two teams from each group as well as the two best third-place teams going through to the quarterfinals, a loss for either team will not be fatal to its gold-medal hopes. However, given that the winner of Group G will take on one of the third-placed teams in the quarterfinals and the runner-up will likely have to face an early meeting with heavyweight Germany in the last eight, both teams will be eager to get a win.
The two teams will go into the contest level at the top of the group standings, although with France ahead on goal difference after brushing aside Colombia 4-0 in its opening contest of the Rio Games. For the U.S., which is seeking to become the first team to follow up World Cup victory with Olympic gold a year later, the start to the Olympics was more solid than spectacular.
Against a dogged New Zealand side, goals early in each half from Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan gave Jill Ellis’ side the three points. After much talk about the new talent in the U.S. side coming into the tournament, it was two of the long-established stars who were the difference makers.
And both picked up right where they left off in Olympic terms. It was Lloyd, now captain of the side, who scored twice in the final in London four years go to beat Japan, while Morgan struck a dramatic winning goal at the end of extra time in a thrilling semifinal against Canada.
Both players were also on target when the U.S. beat its next opponents 4-2 in the group stage in 2012. On that occasion, France raced into a 2-0 lead before two goals from Morgan and one from Lloyd helped the U.S. to a 4-2 win.
Surprisingly, that was France’s first appearance in the women’s Olympic soccer competition. And it ultimately ended with disappointment, when losing to Japan in the semifinals and Canada in the bronze-medal match.
Since then, France, which also lost to the U.S. in the semifinals of the 2011 World Cup, has only furthered its reputation as one of the world’s most technically gifted sides. But, having also lost agonizingly on penalties to Germany at last year’s World Cup, it has yet to turn that undoubted talent into glory at a major tournament.
And the 2016 Olympics is arguably the last chance for this current great generation to deliver. Star attacking midfielder Louisa Necib will retire after the Games, while many of her teammates are also now in their primes or moving past them.
France certainly started the competition as if it means business, recording an emphatic win over a talented Colombia team that had scored an upset win over Les Bleues at last year’s World Cup. Certainly the U.S. is unlikely to take Philippe Bergeroo’s side lightly. After all, France inflicted one of only three defeats on the U.S. in the 59 games since Jill Ellis took charge of the team, and the only one by more than a single goal.
Prediction: This promises to be the standout match of the group stage, with two of the leading contenders for gold going head-to-head. It should be a close affair, too, with the U.S. not at its very best against New Zealand. But the U.S. did keep another clean sheet, something that was the hallmark of its World Cup victory. And with that defensive base, Ellis’ side may just secure a narrow win.
Predicted Score: USA 1-0 France