Towering, tough-minded Wendie Renard stands between USWNT and World Cup semifinals

Dan Wetzel

PARIS — Wendie Renard stands 6-foot-2 and often plays with flowing hair that makes her rise even higher on the pitch.

She is the tallest player in the Women’s World Cup, perhaps its most unique talent, and quite possibly the single-most formidable obstacle in the United States’ path to a championship.

The Americans play Renard’s French national team Friday (3 p.m. ET) in the quarterfinals here. The two clubs are ranked Nos. 1-2 in the world and are the favorites to win the tournament. FIFA pingpong balls set this matchup early, a potential de facto title game in the round of eight.

The French have two wins and a draw in their last three matches against the U.S., including a 3-0 victory in January. The roster is littered with great players.

Renard may not even be the best, but she certainly stands out, and not solely due to her stature.

She is a forceful, physical defender who locks down the middle with partner Griedge Mbock Bathy. For an American team that failed to record a single shot on goal in a 2-1 victory over Spain in the Round of 16 (both goals came on penalty kicks), her ability to potentially shut down the 5-foot-7 Alex Morgan and snuff out attacks is a major concern.

Then, due to her height, Renard is an immense challenge at the other end of the field during French set pieces and corner kicks. She can simply get her forehead on balls that no one else can, making her a threat at any moment of the game. Renard even scored on a penalty kick in a Group stage victory over Nigeria. To get that kind of offense from a backline player is a major bonus for any team.

“She’s great in the air,” said U.S. midfielder Samantha Mewis. “And I think our setup on set pieces will remain the same and you just have to make sure we are doing our job and watching out for her because she is definitely dangerous.”

Wendie Renard, France's physically imposing center back, presents all kinds of challenges to the USWNT. (Getty)

Part of the challenge of playing against Renard is there’s almost no way to prepare for her. You just don’t regularly compete against players with her size, skill and smarts every day. Mewis, listed at 6-foot even, is the tallest American on the roster.

The 28-year-old Renard grew up a self-described “tomboy” on the Caribbean Island of Martinique, which is part of France.

There wasn’t much of a system of girls youth soccer there, but she would play regularly against the boys on the beach or the crowded streets. Obsessed with the French men’s national team, she told her mother and teachers she would be a professional football player even though it seemed impossible at the time.

At 16 she traveled to France for a tryout with the national program. She didn’t make it, but it did earn her a slot at Olympique Lyonnais, the women’s professional powerhouse where a number of top of French national team players compete. She made the national team by age 20 and was a captain by 23, although she doesn’t presently hold the title.

Regardless, there is no questioning her impact on every game she plays. She isn’t just big and tall. She’s very sharp and skilled.

“She’s a very well-rounded player,” Mewis said. “We all have so much respect for her.”

Her first job will be to stop Morgan and an American attack that has scored 20 goals in four games. While that’s impressive, against Spain the U.S. attack was too often forced to take long shots that missed the net. The goals came due to fouls committed in the box and were a sign of possession and field control. It wasn’t a sharp offense, though.

“As a forward, you always want to score in run of play,” Morgan said.

One of the keys was Spain’s willingness to play physically, especially with Morgan, who drew five fouls among perhaps a dozen hard collisions.

“I don’t recall it being this physical, this aggressive, this reckless,” Morgan said of her previous experience against Spain. “I wasn’t expecting that. It was a very challenging game and it showed a little bit of what we might see in France, some things at least.”

The U.S. almost always has the size and strength advantage in games. Whatever they lack in technical or tactical skills they generally make up for in raw power and speed. They are deep with athletes.

None though is Wendie Renard, an impossible-to-ignore figure in every imaginable way.

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