PARIS — This was supposed to be the night, the moment, the game. This was supposed to be when France finally cast off all those years of shackles of chokes in big games. This was supposed to be when a raucous home crowd in the capital’s grand cathedral of soccer empowered this team with the mental strength that has so often left them short against less skilled opponents.
And above all, this was supposed to be the night when France finally beat the Americans in a game that mattered. Not just a friendly, as the last three meetings were, but a real, big, meaningful, potentially era-defining clash in a major tournament.
The fans showed up, the team took the field, they all belted out La Marseillaise and it seemed like the stage was set — especially with elite U.S. midfielder Lindsey Horan opening the match on the bench.
Then, just over three minutes after the opening kickoff, the U.S. won a free kick deep in French territory. And when Megan Rapinoe struck the ball, France goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi did something she has done all too often in her career: she turned into a verb.
“To Bouhaddi” has become part of the women’s soccer lexicon in recent years. As in, she Bouhaddied a ball headed in her direction.
Put that free kick in the dictionary as the latest example. It went right past her into the net untouched. And just like that, the French were in a hole that they never dug out of.
They came close, to be fair, when Wendie Renard finally beat Samantha Mewis and Alyssa Naeher with an 81st-minute header to cut the lead to 2-1. From there on, a game that was already one of the great heavyweight fights in women’s soccer history went up to another level.
When a ball hit Kelley O’Hara’s arm and no penalty kick was given, French media and fans alike called it an injustice.
But to go back to the boxing analogy for a moment, the winner and still the champion was the United States. France cracked under pressure on a big stage again, and not just on that goal.
Bouhaddi nearly conceded another howler 10 minutes after the first goal when she came way out of her 18-yard box and just barely beat Rapinoe to a loose ball. Eugénie Le Sommer faced an open net in the 58th minute after Naeher misjudged a cross, and shot the ball out of bounds. Only the offside big toe of Crystal Dunn’s left foot bailed France out of conceding a third. And how many French passes went out of bounds throughout the contest?
There were times when France looked great. Midfielder and captain Amandine Henry asserted that, “I don’t think we’ve ever dominated the U.S. that much.”
But she knew the truth.
“Dominating them still isn’t the same as winning,” she said. “We let our attention slip in the first half and paid for it big time.”
Henry said she wasn’t surprised by how the U.S. played. She used the word “realism” to describe the Americans’ style, and that resonated beyond just their athleticism. Think of all those runs down to the corner flag in the last few minutes that helped run the clock out. And think of those two second-half counter-attacks when, after long spells of absorbing French pressure, the U.S. attack delivered lethal punches back.
“I think physicality beat technique tonight,” Henry said, and Le Sommer later added that she “wasn’t very impressed.”
Those two know the U.S. team plenty well, from Henry’s time with the Portland Thorns and many years of marquee national team clashes. That includes three straight games the U.S. failed to win: a 3-0 demolition of the Americans in the 2017 SheBelieves Cup, a 1-1 tie in the tournament a year later and a 3-1 U.S. loss on French soil this past January.
But for as big as those games felt in the moment, they didn’t matter anymore when the final whistle blew Friday night.
“A friendly game is always different from a real game in a competition,” French coach Corinne Diacre said. “It’s a World Cup. It depends on the timing of when you play this [American] team. But it’s clear that in a real game, the U.S. is a very different team from what it is in friendlies.”
Le Sommer put it more bluntly: “In games in real competitions like this, they’re still ahead of us.”
And since this loss also knocked France out of qualifying for the Olympics, it might be a while before Les Bleues get another chance to finally close the gap.
“It is a failure,” Diacre said. “I don’t think we should shy away from that. … We didn’t win, we didn’t qualify, so from a sporting perspective, it really can’t be anything other than a failure.”