Women's World Cup roundtable: Hedge your bets before picking the U.S. over England
LYON, France -- Last week, the U.S. passed the daunting test against France, but it doesn't necessarily get any easier for the Americans at this year's Women's World Cup.
On Tuesday (3 p.m. ET), they face a determined England squad, a team with world-class talent who are confident they'll break through.
Will they? It's hard to say for sure one way or the other, but our intrepid crew on the ground in Lyon, ESPN's Graham Hays and Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN FC's Julien Laurens and ESPN UK's Tom Hamilton, share their thoughts:
Which coach do you trust more?
Hays: American fans grumbling about Jill Ellis has been a constant through what is now the longest coaching tenure in the team's history. Lineups, rosters, substitutions, tactics -- she hears it on all fronts. Her teams are also 11-0-1 in the World Cup and 13-0-3 in major tournaments. That's not because she did everything right, but it would also be difficult to pull off if she did as much wrong as the grumbling suggests. As much as Phil Neville seems to have quieted the skepticism that met his entry into the women's game and won over plenty of people, Ellis has more of an imprint on a team. Much more than 2015, this is a team constructed to play the way she wants to play.
Roenigk: Ellis. At least publicly, Neville is focused on too much that's happening off the field -- coaches scouting his players at matches, poor "etiquette" from U.S. ops personnel checking out the lobby of his team's hotel. Neville is creating his own distractions, which might not be sending the best signal to his players.
Laurens: Ellis. I don't always agree with her choices, but she has so much experience. She has been there and done it before at the top level, and she knows exactly how to handle the pressure and the expectations. Ellis understands how her players react. For Neville, this is all new.
Hamilton: Ellis has been there, done that and knows World Cup knockout football better than any. But equally, I'd like to see how the U.S. would cope when being put under relentless pressure and against a team that is prepared to go toe-to-toe with them, rather than standing off in awe. Neville, as a player, has played in football's biggest games and has learned from the best, but this is uncharted territory for him. Both have had brilliant World Cups, but Ellis just shades it here.
Who should start in the U.S. midfield?
Hays: Lindsey Horan's absence from the starting lineup the past two games is puzzling. Unless there is an undisclosed physical limitation -- Ellis' comments after the win against France were emphatic that it was a tactical decision -- it's an odd time for Horan to fall out of favor. Rose Lavelle burst on the scene with a strong debut performance in a loss against England in 2017, but the best lineup for the U.S. at the moment feels like Horan and Sam Mewis starting together in front of Julie Ertz as the holding midfielder. A small midfield didn't work in a 2-2 draw against England earlier this year. Julie Ertz, Horan and Mewis could close down that part of the field without being exposed for speed. And Lavelle could be a game-changer as a sub. The catch is Ellis hasn't started Horan and Mewis together in those roles, the Nos. 8 and 10, since two games against Canada late in 2017.
Laurens: I was surprised to see Horan on the bench against France. For me, she has to start against England. She is the best U.S. midfielder, the league MVP. Julie Ertz is an important player on this team, and I thought she was excellent against France. It then leaves one place for Lavelle or Mewis. Lavelle was disappointing against the French, unlike Mewis, but I would still keep her in the starting lineup. She will rise to the occasion on Tuesday.
Hamilton: A lot of options here for the U.S., so whatever midfield the team goes for, it'll be strong. I'd go with Mewis, Lavelle and Ertz.
Who is England's most valuable player?
Hays: Well, Neville this week called Lucy Bronze the best player in the world, so that seems like a good place to start. Bronze, who won an NCAA title in her lone season at North Carolina, will presumably take her normal place at outside back. Although Neville was coy in at least keeping open the possibility of playing her in midfield, as he did against the U.S. earlier this year. In any role, she's probably England's best all-around athlete. And as well as the U.S. did against France's brilliant wide threats this past Friday, those spaces remain a potential weak spots.
Roenigk: Ellen White is the obvious answer. Along with Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, White leads the World Cup scoring race with five goals, and she's found the net at important moments for England in this tournament. But defender Bronze, who plays for Lyon, is England's workhorse and will be integral against the U.S.
Laurens: Bronze. Although I actually think it is wasting her talent to play her at right back. I wouldn't be surprised if she played in midfield against the U.S.
Hamilton: Bronze is world-class and the best right back in the game. England has other fantastic players, too, but captain Steph Houghton is the key. Neville described her as "irreplaceable," and he's spot on.
Both squads posted impressive quarterfinal wins. Which one element do they need to improve?
Hays: They impressed in very different ways. England took the game to Norway, while the United States dug in and defended once it had an early lead against a better opponent. So the logical answer is each needs to improve in the role it didn't play. The U.S. will want more possession, and in conjunction, want to get Alex Morgan more involved in goal-scoring spaces. Morgan has quietly done necessary dirty work since her five-goal outburst, leaving the scoring to Rapinoe. A perfect scenario would be Rapinoe returning to the set-up role she also fills so well. For England? Well, converting penalty kicks would be wise. Not much else went wrong.
Roenigk: The U.S. tempo is its trademark, but they've had one fewer day to recover after the quarterfinals, and England has proved they can run with the best, so the U.S. attack can't be all about speed. Cleaning up the USWNT's passing up front will be crucial. England has never won a semifinal match at a major tournament, so confidence will be key for the Lionesses.
Laurens: I feel England is yet to be tested in this tournament, and the fact this team hasn't been pushed into giving its absolute best could be an issue if it is dominated by the Americans on Tuesday. England also needs to improve its left-hand side as it depends a lot on the right at the moment. For the Americans, they need to get Tobin Heath more involved. The only time they used her against France, she set up Rapinoe's second goal.
Hamilton: England was magnificent against Norway, putting in its best showing of the tournament. But for the U.S. to knock over France on its own patch is some result.
Which result is better for the tournament?
Hays: Seemingly half the questions that Ellis and her players get from foreign journalists are about their perceived arrogance. Neville added this week that he thinks England is the host country's second-favorite team and will have that support in the semifinal, no small thing given the long history of those two countries. So maybe the rest of the world, or at least Europe, would like to see a final without the Americans. It would certainly cap of a tournament in which Europe's depth is on display. But the best stories have big characters, whether loved or hated. So a final between Europe's reigning champion (the Netherlands) and the U.S.? Or a second Olympic rematch between the U.S. and Sweden? With apologies to the English, that's a better story.
Roenigk: Much like their previous game against France, an American win would draw more global attention to Sunday's final. But an England win could alter the landscape of the sport for women in Great Britain, and in Europe overall. A good outcome for the tournament is one that is close, competitive and free from controversy (and too many post-match stories about VAR).
Laurens: Both teams would be great finalists. Like the U.S.-France match on Friday, it is a shame they won't meet in the final. It would be fantastic for England to beat the Americans and make it to the final. It would bring a change as well.
Hamilton: It depends on which side of the Atlantic you live. The U.S. is the strongest team here, but how wonderful for the growth of the game in England if the Lionesses were to win. So from a completely non-biased point of view, an England victory.
How does the USWNT avoid the emotional hangover after the win against France?
Hays: This one is pretty self-explanatory. One of the great strengths of the U.S. is its habit of taking the game to opponents hard and fast in the opening 15 minutes of a game. That doesn't always lead to a goal, although it has this tournament, but it sets the terms of a game. So how does the U.S. avoid the hangover? By not letting the France game drift into the opening minutes here.
Roenigk: By remembering that they've been here before. And knowing that Sweden is in the final four as well should keep the team -- especially those who played in Rio three years ago -- focused.
Laurens: I don't think there are any fears with the USWNT having an emotional hangover after beating France. Winning is in their culture, their DNA. They never get carried when they win. It is actually the opposite. Winning makes them want to win more. The U.S. does not rest on its laurels.
Hamilton: Not at all. The Americans have been here before. They'll recharge and be strong throughout again.