Let’s be honest: the U.S. women's national team wasn’t expecting to be tested by Spain–at least not like this. The Americans weren’t ready for any real adversity until a probable showdown with France in the Women's World Cup quarterfinals. But Spain, a rising global power in women’s soccer, came out in Monday’s round-of-16 match with nothing to lose and forced the U.S. into a physical, tactical battle.
Ultimately, the Americans survived 2-1 thanks to two penalty kicks from Megan Rapinoe. But it was clear the U.S. was rattled by the way Spain pressed, maintained possession, got down the flank and played dangerous balls into the box. Only once was Spain able to capitalize—on poor decisions from both Alyssa Naeher and Becky Sauerbrunn—but its attack flustered the Americans, who now face an even more experienced attack: France's, in primetime on Friday.
This was probably a good thing for the United States, to have a team push the defending champions before facing the host country in Paris. You don’t want to head into a World Cup quarterfinal against a top-five FIFA world power having outscored your latest opponents by however many goals to zero. Even though in the intermediary these things may be viewed negatively, Naeher was tested even more, Alex Morgan, Julie Ertz and Rose Lavelle were battered at every turn and they made it out alive. Now, they only have three days to rest before the match we've all been anticipating for six months.
With that, here are three thoughts from the Americans’ gritty Round of 16 victory over Spain:
USA advances and that’s what matters
Survive and advance. That’s all that mattered. The U.S. won, thanks to two penalty kicks from Rapinoe, and beat the best team it’s played so far.
The scouting report on Spain heading into this tournament was that it was a few years away from truly competing with the top teams in the world. In 2018, Spain’s U-17 and U-19 teams won the European Championship, and the U-17 team also won the World Cup. This is a country clearly on the rise on the women's soccer scene, but it's not quite there yet. Perhaps its senior national team, currently ranked No. 13 in the world by FIFA, was overlooked as it played the U.S. as close as can be.
The U.S. was fortunate to win this one though. Morgan, who didn’t play the second half against Sweden after getting dinged up, didn’t look 100% and struggled to get a touch on countless balls sent in her direction. Star midfielder Lindsey Horan, who was heroic vs. Sweden, was sitting on a yellow card and didn’t see the field until the 89th minute, a risky move with yellow-card accumulation threatneing her place in the quarterfinals. The only goals the U.S. scored were two penalties from Rapinoe, the second of which–the game-winner–was on a questionable call that passed the VAR test.
“That final third, the final pass, we can clean that up,” Jill Ellis said after the game. “They’re a good team. Part of this is grit and resolve and at times, we played really well. That final piece, we could have been up 3-0 at half.”
Ellis will be criticized for not making substitutions until late. With the game tied 1-1 at halftime, she sent the same XI out for the second half. Difference-makers came on late, with Carli Lloyd on in the 85th minute, Horan in the 89th and Christen Press in the 97th to see out the final seconds. Could they have changed the direction of the attack had they come on earlier? If the U.S. lost, there would have been a lot of “what if” questions like that asked.
Regardless, the U.S. is through to the quarterfinals.
Questions around Naeher remain
Naeher lived a little too dangerously in this one. Plenty has been discussed in the months leading into the tournament about how Naeher, playing in her first major tournament for the national team, is the Americans’ biggest question mark. She’s the first goalkeeper not named Briana Scurry or Hope Solo to play a Women's World Cup knockout game for the U.S. since 1991. Even if Naeher is a cool, calm, collected athlete, that’s quite the history to live up to.
The U.S. went into this game shutting out opponents 18-0 through the group stage. With the U.S. up 1-0 in the ninth minute, after Rapinoe's first penalty, there were some serious issues in decision making between Naeher and Sauerbrunn that resulted in the U.S. giving up its first goal of this tournament. Naeher made a needless, risky pass out of the back to Sauerbrunn, who was under pressure and couldn't get rid of it quickly enough. That allowed Spain to pounce, and Jenni Hermoso took advantage to equalize.
Later, Naeher tried to clear a ball after Crystal Dunn passed it back to her, but instead the ball deflected off a Spanish player and could have been another critical, sloppy mistake. On the whole, she just looked uneasy, emblematic of the U.S. on the day.
There won’t be room for that kind of lapse in judgment against France and its prolific attack.
Bring on France
After the U.S. and France both survived round-of-16 scares, we can finally officially discuss their upcoming quarterfinal matchup. The two sides have been on a crash course to meet in Paris ever since the groups were set, but both had to win their respective groups and first knockout round games in order to get there.
Now, here they are.
The last time these teams met was a friendly in January. France dominated with a lineup that looked similar to what it'll put on the field Friday, while the U.S. was missing several starters, including Ertz, Rapinoe and Tobin Heath. Some Americans who played in that game didn’t even make Ellis’s final roster. The U.S. has sharpened up since then, and up until playing Spain, looked ruthless and unstoppable.
Expect France to bombard the U.S. back line, especially down Crystal Dunn’s left side with Amandine Henry, who scored the game-winner against Brazil in extra time, and Kadidiatou Diani, who scored twice against the U.S. twice in January. The U.S. attack couldn’t score against Spain’s defense in the run of play, and France has a deeper, more veteran group led by Wendie Renard and Griedge Mbock Bathy, who made arguably the play of this World Cup when she cleared a potentially game-winning, goal-bound shot from Brazil’s Debinha off the line in extra time.
After an easy first three games, the U.S. faced unforseen adversity against Spain. Maybe it was the wakeup call the team didn’t know it needed in order to be prepared to face France.