A former national team player, and owner of a silver medal from the 2000 Women’s Olympic Football Tournament, Michelle French has an impressive CV. Now at her second FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup as USA coach, French has a track record of just one defeat in nine matches at this level. And now with a semi-final match-up against Korea DPR looming, the Stars and Stripes are just two wins away from a record fourth world title.
FIFA.com spoke with French about the form of her team during the tournament, their epic comeback win over Mexico in the quarter-finals, the challenge offered by Korea DPR and the weight of expectation.
FIFA.com: What do Korea DPR offer as an opponent? Michelle French: They are another completely different team to what we have faced. They are really good defensively, really good in wide areas, lethal in set-plays. So we have a lot of areas we need to tighten up defensively, if we want to be successful. In attack, we want to be aggressive and get after their organised shape. We know the success they have had, and how much better they have got as a country. You look at the success with the U-17s and he (Korea DPR coach Hwang Yongbong) has brought that to the U-20 group, so we know it will be a really tough game.
*Is there a level of expectation or pressure that comes with USA being three-time champions? *I don’t think so at all because this group hasn’t won anything. Those teams were completely different teams. What this age-group has done in the past is extremely impressive, but this group of players still wants to put their own stamp on the game.
*Is the team where you would want them to be after four matches? *We have faced a number of varying challenges based on playing against very different opponents. So I would say pieces of our game have evolved, but we can definitely be better in certain areas. In the France match, we were back on our heels a little bit and could have been more aggressive. There have been things from each game we have tried to improve. In the Mexico game, we had moments of really good soccer, there were little bit of transition back and forth having to defend Mexico’s direct play.
The impressive thing for me, regardless of how we performed in the game, collectively there was never a lack of belief that we could come back and get the result. So it has been a process for us as we build throughout the tournament, but I’m happy with where we are at and where we are headed.
*It is a relatively young team so has a lack of experience been an issue? *I think it played into the first couple of games because many of them just don’t have that World Cup experience. Many of them weren’t even on the qualifying roster. We are at the point now that they have this belief, and that lack of World Cup experience isn’t an issue any more.
*How much focus is there on developing players against winning trophies? *Our responsibility with the youth teams is to be successful on the world stage, as well as produce players that can compete for roster spots on the senior team. So this cycle, the coaching staff really focused on doing everything we can so that if any player from this group gets the call-up, they are ready for the standards and expectations of the senior team. As best as we can do on or off the field, we know that is a massive part of our role.
*The team came from behind to win against Mexico and draw against Ghana. What can you say about the resolve of this team? *I said (after the group stage) our best soccer is ahead of us. The game (against Mexico) was not about the soccer piece of it all, it was about the hard work and determination and the USA mentality. The resolve this group of players played with, from players one to 21, and the belief that we would come back and get the result, was one of the most impressive I have been involved in. They 100 per cent felt that they could come back, and that is something that has been built into our culture.