DECINES-CHARPIEU, France — From an American perspective, the matchup that could determine the winner of the Women’s World Cup semifinal Tuesday — and perhaps the award given to the best player in this month-long competition — will take place on the left side of the field.
From the English point of view, it’s the right side.
Soccer matches are not typically settled by individual clashes, and in all likelihood, the U.S.-England showdown at Lyon’s sold-out, suburban stadium will come down to collective spirit and performance. But it is almost impossible to overlook the deliciousness of England’s Lucy Bronze crossing paths with American Megan Rapinoe.
England Coach Phil Neville has claimed that Bronze is the best player in the world, a high compliment for any player but in particular for an outside defender. Rapinoe, a forward, is the talk of the tournament, both for her consecutive two-goal performances in the knockout rounds and for raising issues that transcend sports.
“I don’t think you’ll get any better [matchup] in women’s football," Neville said Sunday.
If Bronze lines up in her usual position of right back, that is. Neville hinted at sliding her into midfield, a spot she has filled on occasion.
“It might be Rachel Daly against Megan Rapinoe; you just never know,” Neville said with a sly smile. “We have a decision to make there.”
No matter where they are on the field, Bronze and Rapinoe will step to the forefront for their teams and, with a victory, make their case for the Golden Ball, awarded to the World Cup’s best player. Tuesday’s survivor advances to Sunday’s final against the Netherlands or Sweden. That semifinal will take place here Wednesday.
By now, U.S. audiences are well acquainted with Rapinoe, who turns 34 on Friday. She is tied for the tournament’s scoring lead with five goals, joining teammate Alex Morgan, Australia’s Sam Kerr and England’s Ellen White. And she has drawn both praise and criticism in recent years for her nonathletic causes, ranging from gender equality to politics. President Trump tweeted about her after she said she would not attend a White House ceremony should the United States repeat as World Cup champion.
Bronze, 27, is more reserved, but her game speaks volumes. The goal she scored against Norway in the quarterfinals — a wicked one-timer from the top of the penalty area that streaked into the top of the net — is among the best of the tournament.
What makes her special is an ability not just to join the attack but influence it.
“She’s a very attacking-minded player,” U.S. Coach Jill Ellis said. “So, yeah, she’s going to come forward.”
Bronze’s career has ascended since England’s third-place finish four years ago in Canada; she scored twice in that competition. On the club scene, she has starred in Lyon for two seasons with Olympique Lyonnais, the French and European champion.
Defenders — in particular outside defenders — yield the limelight to playmakers and scorers. But by blending defending and attacking, Bronze has an impact on matches like few others.
“I do believe she is the best player in the world because she is unique in everything she does,” said Neville, a former outside back for Manchester United, Everton and the English national team. “Even though she plays fullback, doesn’t score [a lot of] goals, I still think that needs recognizing. When we are doing these ballots and polls, sometimes defenders are special as well.”
American soccer influenced Bronze as a teenager. She attended youth camps at the University of North Carolina and went on to play for the Tar Heels. In one season before returning to England, she was part of the 2009 NCAA championship team that included current U.S. star Tobin Heath.
In a recent interview, North Carolina Coach Anson Dorrance said: “I asked her once, ‘Lucy, are you interested in playing for your national team?' She said, ‘Oh, it’s my dream, but I live in Sunderland [in northeast England]; no one comes up to watch us play.’ ”
Nonetheless, Bronze’s career took off. She moved from Sunderland to Everton, then to Liverpool and Manchester City before signing with Olympique Lyonnais, the model club for women’s soccer in Europe.
In 2018, the BBC named her the women’s footballer of the year, an honor that considers players worldwide.
“At Lyon, there’s 20 other superstars there — I’m not the best player there," she told the Guardian before the World Cup. "I’m not the best player at England. There’s players who are brilliant as well, so there’s shared responsibility and pressure. That’s the strength in the [national-team] squad right now.”
That is also the strength of the U.S. team, which has not lost since January and enters the final week of the tournament favored to win its fourth world championship. None of the other semifinalists have won the title; only Sweden, in 2003, has advanced to the final.
Rapinoe is a critical part of the effort. Neville said he admires Rapinoe’s skill set and hunger. He recounted a story from a match between the United States and England in Orlando.
“A ball was bouncing on the touchline," he said. "I went to catch the ball, and her studs came right through my Apple Watch. She has not repaid me yet. What I liked about it, she didn’t say sorry; she just got on with it. She’s a winner.”
Liz Clarke contributed to this report.