Everything goes up a few more notches in the knockout rounds, where a potential quarter-final between France and the US could be one of the most epic matches in the history of women’s football.
As a player, I loved the pressure of the big time moments that occur during the World Cup’s knockout rounds. You feel more butterflies, a bit more stress and a little bit more excitement. Training sessions are more intense. Everything goes up a few more notches. You think you have given it your all during the group-stage games but then you learn that there’s another level to reach for in the knockout stages. You know that if you lose, you go home. The intensity goes up and those who embrace that pressure can find it to be fun.
Women’s World Cup 2019 power rankings: USA top and England third
It’s different for coaches. We’d see the stress build up in them months before the tournament even began. They would scout other teams and start to worry if opponents played well in pre-tournament friendlies. They’d play around with our tactics and try new things, especially defensively and work on gamesmanship like wasting time. Doubt starts to creep in for the coaching staff. I’ve seen every coach go through this stage. They have to figure out how to hide their own nerves from the players. We all live in hotels and travel together so many of the players – especially the veterans – are aware of and tune in with every little thing that goes on while younger players perhaps remain oblivious entrenched in television and on their phones.
We’re not naive to the situation. The power of the players is that they can actually take the pressure off the coaching staff when a tournament starts. They can have a great training session and help to provide a great environment where everyone is feeling confident and more relaxed. There is laughter and even a few extra curse words at training, a combination that is a beautiful energy. It’s the players who control the environment and the coaches can step back and take a deep breath. That doesn’t mean everything will be perfect, but coaches must know they can trust the players they’ve chosen and are now dependent upon.
During the group stage, I was really impressed by Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan and Sam Mewis in the United States midfield. They’ve been superb. Many people think a US attack with Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath is our strongest quality but, so far this young midfield has provided the USA with such control of the game. They could perhaps be one of the best midfields we have ever seen. Rose, Lindsay and Sam really control the tempo of a game very well when they play together. For me, Julie Ertz is not a natural midfielder. She’s an incredible center back and I think it’s her best position. She is so dominant and she’s one of the best defenders in the world. I enjoyed playing behind her in goal.
I haven’t seen any nerves from any American first-time World Cup players like Rose. She still has to prove herself over the entire tournament but I was really impressed with how she played against Sweden – it was a great test for her. It’s incredibly impressive that the US has played a number of different players and have shown different playing styles over the first three games. It means that they’re not going to be 100% predictable and opponents will have to decide how to approach the game when they meet the United States.
Assuming the US beat Spain, and that France does beat Brazil, the quarter-final match between France and the US could be one of the most epic matches in the history of women’s football. I couldn’t have imagined anything being more exciting than the 2011 quarter-final match between the USA and Brazil in terms of drama and emotion: a Brazil penalty (that I saved but had to be re-taken when one of our players encroached), a US red card, a late US equalizer in extra-time, and a penalty shootout.
The 2011 World Cup in Germany was so special. There was a great atmosphere that reverberated throughout the country. We were playing in old cities with cobblestone walkways and packed stadiums. We played in front of football-intelligent crowds. There were viewing parties where fans could watch games on huge screens in town centers. The World Cup seemed to be everywhere and you couldn’t ignore it. Which is why I had high expectations for France this year.
I’d imagined it would be more like Germany rather than Canada in 2015. When we were in Winnipeg in 2015 many people had no idea that there was even a World Cup going on. So I was surprised that as we have traveled across France there’s not the same atmosphere as Germany. It’s even stranger considering how much the attitude towards women’s soccer has changed in France.
When I lived in France in 2005 no one cared about women’s football. In every Uber or taxi that I’ve taken in the past few weeks, the oftentimes older male drivers make a point to tell me that they won’t be working when France plays and that they want to make sure they are able to bring their sons to the match or at least watch the national team play with their boys.
There has been a shift in support for women’s football from the public, even from the older generation. I just wish that the local organizing committee had shown as much support and trust as the fans, coaches and the players are trying to. It would be great to see the tournament’s organizers raise their intensity over the next few weeks, too. Atmosphere can help new fans fall in love with the game.
Still, USA-France in 2019 could be worthy of a final itself. The US and France are similar teams. They both like to attack and do so in a variety of different ways. They have strong ability from set pieces, both teams have speed, and both teams know how to play as a team. Both teams have questions about their defenses as do most teams in this World Cup.
This is not a tournament of sound defense but rather a tournament for goalscorers.