As evidenced by their showdown earlier this year at the SheBelieves Cup, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team and their French counterparts are not very far apart. At Nashville’s Nissan Stadium, it took an all-world performance from goalie Hope Solo and a stoppage time strike from Alex Morgan to give the U.S. a narrow 1-0 victory.
The two sides meet again Saturday (NBCSN, 4 P.M. ET) in a critical group phase match at the Rio Olympics.
While there may not be much of a difference in talent between the two sides, there’s a massive difference in international results. The U.S. have won four of five Olympic tournaments and are the reigning World Cup champions. France reached their high-water mark at the 2011 Women’s World Cup and 2012 Olympics - finishing fourth in each tournament.
One way to explain the difference in international success, is to compare the two domestic leagues. 17 of 18 (exception 18-year-old Mallory Pugh) U.S. players ply their trade in the National Women’s Soccer League, while 16 of the 18 players on Philippe Bergeroo’s squad play in France.
“They’re very different the two leagues,” says U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe, who played for Olympic Lyon in 2013 and now plays for the NWSL’s Seattle Reign FC.
“The parity in the NWSL is ridiculous,” Rapinoe said Thursday from the U.S. team’s hotel in Belo Horizonte. “I think that you can look to different teams and say - they have better players or play a better style - but still the competitive nature of every single game is there for 90 minutes and they are extremely tough games.”
Rapinoe also said she believes NWSL games are more physically taxing than a lot of the matches the U.S. women play at the international level.
“The French League is not on par in the parity sense,” continued Rapinoe, who went to a Champions League Final with Lyon in 2013. “You don’t get that sort of competitive game all the time. You get ten to twelve [competitive] games a year and that’s including a Champions League if you make it all the way to the final.”
While the 31-year-old may give NWSL an edge from a competitive standpoint, she has little doubt that the top teams in France could hold their own against the best clubs in the United States.
“I think the team at the top, Lyon, is a fantastic team,” Rapinoe says of her former employer - a club where twelve of this summer’s French Olympians currently play. “They would easily rival any of the teams that we have in the NWSL.”
Overall, Rapinoe sees opportunities for growth in both countries - and says each could take a lesson from the other.
“We need to keep growing technically and tactically to be on par with the best teams around Europe,” concluded Rapinoe. “They need a little more competition to maybe help them grit out a few more games.”