This is the match that everyone has had circled on their calendar since the Olympics soccer schedule came out. On Saturday, the No. 1-ranked U.S. women's national team will be forced to face No. 3-ranked France, their toughest test of the group stage.
The U.S. women are on their way to try to claim their fifth-ever gold medal after easily disposing of New Zealand in the first match of Rio 2016. But the USA's chances to win their group always hinged on their next match against France.
"We know that this is the game that will probably decide the group," American defender Becky Sauerbrunn told reporters in Brazil. "France are one of the best teams in the world. Their attack is so dynamic, their defense is really organized, so we know it's going to be tough."
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Here's an overview of Saturday's all-important clash of the titans:
Second match of Group G play: USWNT vs. France, Saturday at 4 p.m. ET
USWNT roster notes: Youngster Mallory Pugh took a knock on Wednesday against New Zealand. And although she played through it for a while longer, she looked to have a slight limp after the match. Afterward, coach Jill Ellis suggested her ankle injury was a minor one. But given the quick turnaround between games, it seems like a safe bet that Pugh will be rested and not start again.
Meanwhile, there is no indication that anything has changed with Megan Rapinoe. We already know that she's not expected to make her long-awaited return after eight months of being sidelined until the next match of the Olympics at least.
USWNT projected XI:
Here's our best guess at the USA's preferred 4-2-3-1. The Americans really don't need to change much after the dominant display from the squad in the first match. But given the tight schedule and toll it can take on players, Ellis will be keen to rotate her squad and give players some rest.
Lindsey Horan did not get the starting nod in the midfield against New Zealand, but if there's any opponent she should start against, it's France. After all, France is where Horan has honed her game, going pro straight out of high school to play for Paris Saint-Germain for four years. She'll know how to go up against the French. She is most likely to replace Allie Long, who up until recently was a bubble player and started against the weaker New Zealand side. Horan paired with Morgan Brian is the USA's best option in the middle for the USA's toughest test.
It was perhaps a bit of a surprise to see 18-year-old Pugh start on the flank on Wednesday over Crystal Dunn, but Ellis may have simply been saving Dunn to go up against the big guns. Dunn's form has been excellent. And now, with Pugh having taken a knock, Dunn starting on the right flank looks all the more likely.
The Americans will want to use their speed to get by a disciplined French back line, as well as to break up potential counterattacks. Dunn brings that, and it's also why we should again see fullbacks Meghan Klingenberg and Kelley O'Hara racing up and down the flanks in the same back line we saw Wednesday.
What to know about France: For starters, the French are very good. Not that you would necessarily know it by looking at their record in major tournaments. They have never done better than fourth place in a Women's World Cup or an Olympics. For whatever reason, Les Bleus have a tendency to stumble under the limelight of the big stage, even though their overall roster is stacked with talent.
That talent includes multiple scoring threats, and chief among them is Louisa Necib. She has been compared to Zinedine Zidane throughout her career for good reason. And she may have an extra spring in her step: The 29-year-old has vowed to retire after the Olympics, making this her last chance to earn a major title for her country. Another player to watch is Amandine Henry, who on Friday was named to the shortlist for the best player in Europe. She now plays stateside for the Portland Thorns in the NWSL, and will play a key role in trying to cut out American attacks and disrupt their rhythm.
France coach Philippe Bergeroo downplayed expectations on Friday, pointing out that France have won just once against the Americans in five meetings during his tenure as coach. In fact, France has won only once against the U.S. ever, but that came in February 2015, so it's certainly not out of the question to see a repeat on Saturday, even if it would be tough.
Projected outcome: France looked downright dominant in their first match against Colombia, crushing them 4-0 and shaking off the ghosts of last summer's World Cup, when Colombia shocked the world by beating France 2-0 in the group stage. But the U.S. looked dominant in their first match in Brazil, too.
It should be an open and competitive match, but the Americans remain the favorites and should get by with a 2-1 win. If there's one thing the Americans do well, it is stepping up under pressure, and France simply haven't shown that same sort of mental toughness.
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