On Wednesday, the United States will face France in the semifinals of the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup, with each team's presence at this stage being a bit of a surprise. The US clawed its way to a penalty shootout victory over Brazil after Abby Wambach scored moments before the team was eliminated. France, meanwhile, convincingly made it out of a competitive Group A that included the two-time defending champions. The team has made good on its dark horse credentials.
Here are 10 matchups (some usual, some not so much) worth keeping an eye on:
Heather O'Reilly vs. Sonia Bompastor
At first glance, there may not seem to be many similarities between the US' right winger and France's left back. Both players belong to different generations. As the US' workhorse midfielder, the 25-year-old O'Reilly is entering the prime of her career while France's 31-year-old cerebral defender is fading from hers. However, both players may be the most technically gifted players in their squads. It should be a classic matchup that pits quickness against refinement.
Shannon Boxx vs. Louisa Necib
Boxx, the US' holding midfielder, worked tirelessly against Brazil to ensure her team remained in control of the middle of the park. The 33-year-old had a fairly uneven tournament up to that point but displayed her unique defensive qualities in that showcase quarterfinal.
The US veteran will have to put forth another sterling defensive effort against Necib. The mercurial central midfielder is capable of orchestrating the attack, particularly when she's given license to roam.
Berangere Sapowicz vs. Hope Solo
France's No. 1 goalkeeper, Sapowicz will likely return to action against the US after a red card suspension forced her to miss the quarterfinal against England. The Paris-Saint Germaine keeper wasn't entirely convincing in Group A-play, appearing timid when coming out for crosses. That might pose a problem for France, given Wambach's aerial prowess (both of her goals this World Cup have been headers).
Sapowicz's opposite number, Solo, has impressed. The American goalkeeper blocked two critical penalty kicks (although only one was called back) in the US's thrilling win against Brazil. Solo has appeared sharp throughout, compensating for a backline that can occasionally get stretched.
Amy Rodriguez vs. form
The US' central forward has started in each of the team's four games but has yet to make a real impact. Rodriguez has done well with her movement off the ball and (oddly enough) her defensive abilities, but her efforts are often betrayed by a poor first touch. While she's also earned goal-scoring opportunities, she's squandered all of them.
The 24-year-old's pace will be needed to get in behind France's center back pairing, but now, goals are needed, too.
Abby Wambach vs. the clock
Wambach headed in her 120th international goal on Sunday, surely the most significant of her career. The dramatic equalizer forced the shootout from which the US emerged victorious. With the team in the semifinals, the prolific striker deserves a lot of credit for how far the team has gone.
Yet the 31-year-old has struggled with fitness, with a reoccurring Achilles injury threatening to keep her out of the US' last group stage match against Sweden. On Sunday, Wambach proved just how vital she is to the team.
Wambach has yet to win a Women's World Cup, often saying her career would be incomplete without it. Now's her chance to make that happen (before her body refuses to stay in peak condition).
Christie Rampone vs. retirement
The starting center back Rampone has long been a servant to the US Women's National Team. The 36-year-old is the only player on the squad that was a member of the iconic 1999 team. Against Brazil, Rampone looked the best she has in a long time.
The defender made her mark as an outside back before moving to the inside later in her career, but the central defender (and mother of two) still clearly has speed to burn, as she showed in her ability to mark and even outpace Marta.
This will very likely be Rampone's final World Cup. She will undoubtedly look to captain the side to its first world title since the famed `99ers.
Pia Sundhage vs. loyalty
The US head coach has made several deft positional decisions this World Cup; notably in moving forward Lauren Cheney to outside midfield. Now Sundhage will face her biggest challenge yet, being forced to choose a replacement for center back Rachel Buehler, who earned a red card after a questionable foul against Brazil.
Sundhage is known to be very loyal to players she trusts. Outside back Stephanie Cox has made three appearances so far in replace of Amy LePeilbet. LePeilbet may move back to her familiar center back position while Cox could get the start at left back.
Another option is Becky Sauerbrunn, who played her way back into the national team squad after three solid years in WPS. The 26-year-old has only made eight total international appearances, however, and has yet to see time in Germany.
Will Sundhage elect to go for a like-for-like switch or show fidelity to Cox?
Les Bleues vs. attitudes
Les Bleues reportedly don't like to be associated or compared with France's men's team, particularly after the debacle that was the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Bruno Bini's team would much prefer pave its own way. Thus far, they have. France were considered underdogs heading into the tournament but have advanced out of the group stage for the first time in Women's World Cup history.
Attitudes towards women's soccer in France remain tepid, if not wholly apathetic. Three members of the senior side made headlines for posing naked in Playboy in a bid to generate interest in the team's World Cup campaign. It's a promotional move that used to be more common in the late `90s/early `00s, when women's soccer was truly in its infancy, but is a rarity these days -- particularly for a senior team.
An appearance in the final -- particularly if France continues to play sleek and stylish football -- should help to boost attention in women's soccer in France, for all the right reasons.
Mentality vs. finesse
The US's mentality won out against Brazil as the team outlasted its rival (Megan Rapinoe's cross and Wambach's header also helped, too). The "never say die" attitude and strong self-belief the Americans often talk up was definitely on display the quarterfinals.
France, meanwhile, is one of the two most technically skilled teams in the other tournament -- the other being Japan -- with the bulk of Les Bleues players developed together at France's famed Clairefontaine national academy.
The US will have to contend with France's fine passing abilities while Les Bleues must avoid getting bowled over by the US's fierce willpower.
The long-awaited breakthrough vs. a slow and steady decline back into obscurity
Is this the moment that women's soccer can make a dent in the soccer's mainstream culture? Both on American and European shores, perhaps.
The US's thrilling, last-gasp win over Brazil has been met with praise and interest from American media outlets. Hopefully the interest can continue to crest as the team persists in their quest for a third world title. For once, the USWNT is actually relevant again.
Meanwhile, Germany has staged a terrific tournament, each match having a measure of atmosphere that translates well to TV audiences. This World Cup has also displayed just how much women's soccer has advanced in technical proficiency and tactical sophistication.
The sport has made a good account of itself, hopefully doing enough to lure in more European supporters.
Will these matches help push the women's game closer to a breakthrough, or will the momentum simply stop once the final whistle blows next Sunday?