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U.S.’s winning mentality could prove pivotal in clash with skilled, but soft, France

The United States women's national team has an edge over France that goes beyond the field: the mentality to win when it matters most

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil — God bless the U.S. women’s soccer team. At a time when so many athletes use canned quotes and go out of their way to be uninteresting before a big game, this U.S. team has a group of players that has been delightfully unfiltered ahead of its Olympic group-stage showdown against France on Saturday (4 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

This is a salty group—and salty in the fun sense, not the angry sense.

Take left back Meghan Klingenberg, who said this on the press conference podium Friday about goalkeeper Hope Solo, who’s earning her 200th cap: “We know that we have somebody that’s world-class behind us if s--- hits the fan.”

Or midfielder Megan Rapinoe, who explained the U.S.’s hard-as-nails team mentality in big games by pointing to former U.S. World Cup winner Kate Markgraf, who now works for NBC: “We learned it from these guys,” Rapinoe said, imitating what she heard as a young player with the national team. “‘DON’T YOU F---ING GIVE UP!’ That’s where we learned it from.”

This U.S. team is your brash, gleefully profane cool female friend who you want to go out and have beers with. And to hear them say it, their winning mentality is what often makes a difference in games like Saturday’s, when most other things are relatively equal.

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USA-France is the game of the group stage in these Olympics, and the stakes are significant. The team that wins the group should have an easier road in the knockout rounds and get the chance to play in Rio de Janeiro one round earlier in the semifinals. The team that finishes second will likely have to meet Germany in the quarterfinals.

The U.S. and France may be the two best teams in the world right now. And while the U.S. players are complimentary of France’s rise over the past five years—the French are one of two teams that have beaten the U.S. since the start of 2015—they’re also aware that France hasn’t come through when the games have mattered most. They think it’s a mentality issue.

“France is a great, talented team,” said U.S. co-captain Carli Lloyd. “They’ve done well. I think the thing with our team is we can have the extra edge, and I think that’s a mentality. When we put teams on their heels, when we intimidate teams and we bring that mentality, it frustrates teams. It puts them off their game. With France they have all the talent in the world to go all the way, but I think the intimidation factor and the mentality is what we have over many of these teams. We’re able to get the job done.”

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Lloyd didn’t say it, but I will: France has a reputation for being highly skilled and athletic but kind of soft, Les Bleues as Le Charmin. That rep only intensified when the French outplayed Germany in last year’s World Cup quarterfinals but still lost.

That said, France brings a lot to the table on Saturday, particularly in the attack. When asked to describe the French threat, U.S. co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn said: “Fluidity. They’ve got a lot of different tools and a lot of different ways they can attack. And they have special players. You look at [Eugenie] Le Sommer. She’s able to get in behind, she’s able to combine in front. You always have to be aware of her. They’ve got speed and technique, and they’re smart. It’s tough to play against.”

One area to look at in particular on Saturday will be what happens when the U.S. pushes forward, but France wins the ball. The U.S.’s fullbacks, Klingenberg and Kelley O’Hara, have started moving forward more than ever in the past year, adding a new dimension to the U.S. attack. But France’s speed on the counterattack could put lots of pressure on U.S. centerbacks Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston, as well as the covering defensive midfielder (likely Allie Long or Lindsey Horan).

That push and pull could be key in the game.

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“If you look at the women’s game as a whole, you can see an evolution in the way that outside backs play,” said Klingenberg. “They’re not a position that stays back and are just ball-winners anymore. They create, they get forward, they get into really good positions for final balls. And I think that’s what our team has been trending toward. That’s the way we want to play.”

Noted U.S. coach Jill Ellis, “[Klingenberg] is almost the prototype outside back. They’ve got to have good feet and be able to play both sides of the ball. I think the great thing now about Meghan is she can play with inside/outside space, she likes to get forward, she’s good in the final third and she even scored some goals. Ultimately, the job is to defend, and she does that well. I think for us it’s getting players that are confident on the ball, period.”

There’s a lot on the line in this game, and a tie probably won’t help the U.S. much, considering France beat Colombia 4–0 in its opening game. A win is what matters here. In the group-stage game that everyone has been pointing toward, it’ll be fun to have an old-fashioned throwdown.