We spent most of the group stage wondering whether the USWNT were actually good. After 90 hectic minutes against Spain on Monday, we may finally be a bit closer to an answer.
The US cruised into the knockout rounds with three wins from three in their group, scoring 18 times without reply in games against Thailand, Chile and Sweden. The goal tally could've been higher too, if it wasn't for Christiane Endler's heroic second half performance in the Chile goal.
After a comfortable 2-0 win over Sweden, comfortably the second best side in the group, the American defence hadn't really been challenged, certainly not troubled. Over the course of the second half, the question went from 'when will we find out how good the US are?' to 'oh dear lord, are they actually this good – and how do we find drama in the rest of the tournament if they are?'
Fans arriving in Reims to face Spain – 13th in the world rankings, four spots below Sweden – were ready for a mild hammering. Perhaps some of it was American bravado, but a brief canvassing didn't return a result any closer than 3-1. Most were nowhere near as conservative.
The match kicked off to a roar from the two sets of travelling fans, and referee Katalin Kulcsar had pointed to the spot for a US penalty within five minutes for a foul on Tobin Heath. Megan Rapinoe steadied herself, sent Sandra Panos the wrong way and that, it seemed, was that.
Then Alyssa Naeher played a short ball to Becky Sauerbrunn and all hell broke loose. A strong collective press from the Spanish forward line won the ball back immediately, presenting it on a plate for Jenni Hermoso. Her finish from the edge of the box was hermoso indeed, and the US conceded their first goal of the tournament.
All within the first ten minutes of the match.
The rest of the first half was goalless, but the pattern of the game had been set. The US would get the ball, and Spain would pressure them high, early and with numbers. If the tactic was surprising from a Spanish side known more for their technical ability than their physicality, the US response was even more unexpected. They just...let it happen.
Absolutely no change in tactics, or approach. Naeher almost gave away a second goal trying to play out from the back to Crystal Dunn who, for all the question marks over her suitability in a defensive role, was one of the only players in white to keep her composure on and off the ball.
Passes were hurried, and went astray. Cracks started to appear in the defence, and threatened to widen into real, honest holes. How good are the US? Hell. Suddenly we aren't so sure again. But for the first time, nor are the team.
Positives for Spain: the US are not at all comfortable being pressured on the ball— Chris Deeley 🚨 FORGOTTEN NATIONS OUT NOW 🚨 (@ThatChris1209) June 24, 2019
Negatives for Spain: neither are they
"We have the best team and second best team in the world," boasted Jill Ellis last week. They might not even have had the best team in this match. It took an incredibly dubious penalty – the kind that looks just barely giveable in slow motion, but completely innocuous in real time – to seal the win with 15 minutes to go.
France and either Norway or England lie next on the path for Ellis and co.
Spain may not have managed to beat them, but they've drawn the blueprint and posted it on walls all over France. The secret's out. The US can lose.