Soccermatics: Why France poses serious challenge to USWNT at Olympics

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Professor David Sumpter uses in-depth passing charts to analyze why the U.S. women face a serious challenge against France at the Olympics.

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The United States women’s national team had a comfortable start to the Rio 2016 Olympics on Wednesday with a 2-0 win over New Zealand. The Americans now look forward to the true group-stage test: a meeting with France in Belo Horizonte on Saturday.

The U.S. women are favorites to win a fourth straight Olympic gold medal, after winning the Women’s World Cup last year. This year they have won 15 and drawn 1 of their 16 games, including 14 shutouts. These include victories over England, France, Germany and Canada.

And the Americans have done all this while U.S. head coach Jill Ellis juggled a roster transitioning from the oldest of 24 teams at last year's World Cup to one noticeably younger and less experienced.

But while the group's strong results underscore that the U.S. is the team to beat at the Olympics, the Americans should not be complacent. Against France in the SheBelieves Cup in March, the U.S. was far from dominant. Below is a passing network for the French team in that match:

The thicker the lines connecting two players, the more passes they made to each other. The position of the players is where they passed and received the ball from.

The danger for the U.S. came from Eugénie Le Sommer and Marie-Laure Delie. They both had clear chances in front of goal on that day, most notable a miss by Le Sommer on the 9th minute, which was followed by a few missed opportunities.

While they might have missed their chances, the fact that Le Sommer and Delie linked up so far up the pitch is remarkable. If we compare to a passing network in the same match for U.S. women, we see a team pushed much farther back.

Despite being limited in their attack, the U.S. scored in stoppage time when Mallory Pugh found a pass through to Alex Morgan. In front of goal, Morgan didn’t miss and the U.S. won, 1-0.

France will be looking for revenge and, based on Les Bleues’ performance in March, they should provide a strong challenge to the United States. The question will be whether Le Sommer and Delie, who came off the bench in Wednesday’s 4-0 victory over Colombia, can finish their opportunities.

And that meeting in March also didn’t feature midfielder Amandine Henry, one of the best players in the world, who was hurt at the time. France defeated the U.S. last year, 2-0 in Lorient, but faltered against the Americans in the 2011 World Cup semifinals and the group stage of the 2012 Olympics. The U.S. is a benchmark for the French, who know Saturday is another opportunity to prove they belong among the elite.

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David Sumpter’s book Soccermatics: Mathematical Adventures in the Beautiful Game is out now with Bloomsbury Publishing.