Forget tinkering with lineups. Forget using these high-level Algarve Cup matches to assess player talent and fitness when the United States women’s national team battles France for the Algarve Cup final on Wednesday (live, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports Go, Wednesday, 12 p.m. ET).
The matchup sounds especially good since France is coming off their first-ever victory over the United States. "The test is over," France’s head coach Philippe Bergeroo told Fox Sports on Tuesday, adding: "This is a game to put on the field a lineup for the win."
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The big event of the women’s soccer season is still a few weeks away. The 2015 Women’s World Cup is for all the marbles for the 32 national teams set to report to Canada come June. In the meantime, the good people of the Algarve Cup have conspired this early spring to deliver one heck of a World Cup preview.
If it was a milestone for the French, who defeated the U.S. 2-0 in a friendly last month in Lorient, the loss proved a pretty big thorn in the side of the U.S. women. It was part of the reason U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd showed up in the first game of the Algarve Cup and personally produced a U.S. victory against Norway by scoring two goals. Sick of losing, indeed.
By now, part of the U.S. team’s prickly sense of frustration and disappointment has been somewhat remedied. Their two Algarve Cup wins and a draw against Iceland in group play put the team in a position to contend for an unprecedented 10th Algarve Cup title. But beating France would re-establish a sense of strength for the U.S. that many deem important ahead of the World Cup.
The French are No. 3 in the FIFA rankings, while the U.S. sits at No. 2 behind Germany, who are also in action against Sweden in the game that will determine the third-place finisher in Portugal. These four powerhouses are all vying for any edge in these final weeks before soccer’s big event, and the U.S. is happy for this latest opportunity.
"I certainly think our players are excited to have another chance against France," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said yesterday.
Like most of the teams here, the U.S. has used a lot of players to test lineups and bolster depth ahead of the World Cup. Ellis started four new players (Tobin Heath, Kelley O’Hara, Heather O’Reilly, and Rachel Van Hollebeke) against Iceland, which used highly aggressive tactics and jammed the center to frustrate the U.S.
The difference against Iceland was some key saves by goalkeeper Hope Solo, who has snapped right back into top form here after serving a 30-day suspension that saw her miss the U.S. game in France and against England.
But after months and weeks talking about process and player evaluations, Ellis would not commit to naming her lineup against France.
"We have a lot of depth. I think both teams have a natural attacking style with high-quality technical players and athleticism. Our goal is to get numbers around the ball and both teams are very keen on the attacking game,’" she said.
Leading the charge up top for France will be Eugenie Le Sommer, who scored the first goal against the U.S. in the win last month. The energetic striker can churn through the defense with her dribbling skills or be the target for passes for which she has a knack for turning into goals. She is one of three players in the Algarve Cup to have a tournament-best three goals.
Star midfielder Lousia Necib is not in Portugal after she suffered an ankle injury in the game against the U.S. However, France depends on 30-year-old Camille Abily to bolster the center of the field and score, while central defender Wendi Renard anchors the France back line.
The French team will wear black arm bands to commemorate the tragic loss of three of the their country’s top sports stars in a helicopter crash on Monday in Argentina during the filming of a reality TV show.
But Bergeroo, the former goalkeeper who has helped lift the France women’s team to new heights since taking over the national team in 2013, had little doubt that the U.S. would enter the Algarve Cup final in the same mode as the French.
"The U.S. has a very big roster here. There are 23 very high-level athletes on that side and I expect they will do like France and put the best players on the pitch to win," he said.