REIMS, France — Get ready for the S--tshow Circus.
You wanted USA-France. Now you’ve got it. Sure, it would have made for an epic Women’s World Cup final: The two favorites to win, the defending champion and the host country, going toe to toe in Paris at the giant theater of the Parc des Princes. Alas, it will be a quarterfinal, and yet there’s still no real way to oversell the showdown that’s set for Friday (3 p.m. ET, FOX, Telemundo).
Just listen to Megan Rapinoe, the scorer of both U.S. penalties in Monday’s unexpectedly hard 2-1 round-of-16 victory over Spain. Rapinoe is a glorious gift to journalists, and she coined the perfect hashtag #S--tshowCircus when asked about the spectacle to come in Paris.
“Hopefully a complete spectacle, just an absolute media circus,” Rapinoe said. “I hope it’s huge and crazy, that’s what it should be. This is the best game. This is what everybody wanted. I think we want it. Seems like they’re up for it. You guys of course are up for it, and all the fans. Maybe it’ll be a pretty even split between the fans in the stadium. We’ve been traveling pretty deep in this World Cup.”
“So I hope it’s just a total s---show circus,” she continued. “It’s going to be totally awesome. This is what everybody wants, and these are the biggest games that you kind of dream about as a kid.”
There’s plenty to analyze looking back at the Spain game and looking ahead to France, but sometimes it’s also good to hear the most accomplished figures in a sport just being exuberant about the possibility of an all-time great matchup.
When Rapinoe’s quote was relayed to U.S. coach Jill Ellis, she couldn’t help but smile.
“I may not be as colorful as that!” she said. “Megan is quite the bohemian, you know, so fair play. How do I say this? So many times when we play in big games, it’s actually where I get more excited. So when we have our pregame meetings, it’s more. Because it means more, it matters more, there’s more at stake, and that’s why you do this. You don’t go into one, professional sports, or two, coaching, if you’re not in it for those purposes and those reasons.
“I truly think this is the world game for women, so what a showcase piece,” she continued. “I’m sure a lot of people would want it later in the tournament, but it is what it is … Probably myself and Corinne [Diacre, the France coach] are both like, ‘You know what? We’ve got good players, good teams, good set-ups. And let’s go for it.”
In many ways, the U.S.-Spain game was a means to an end, the final hurdle to setting up USA-France. But it’s still worthwhile to examine some of the things that happened in an incident-filled game. So let’s break it down:
Was that really a legit penalty that led to the U.S.’s second goal?
It was awfully soft. Spain’s Virginia Torrecilla did have a small amount of contact with the U.S.’s Rose Lavelle, who fell forward in the box. Hungarian referee Katalin Kulcsar whistled a penalty and stuck with her call after a long—way too long—VAR review. Had the tables been turned and the U.S. had committed the infraction, American fans would have gone ballistic.
What was Ellis thinking with her substitution choices?
On a night when it was 90 degrees at kickoff, when the U.S. was playing on just three days rest (compared to Spain’s six); when there are just three days of rest before the quarterfinals; when wingers Rapinoe and Tobin Heath and forward Alex Morgan looked gassed in the second half; when the U.S. has trusted its vaunted depth so much that all 20 field players have seen time on the field in this tournament, Ellis decided not to make a single substitution until the 85th minute. What?!?
Ultimately, Carli Lloyd came on for Morgan (in the 85th), Lindsey Horan came on for Rose Lavelle (in the 89th), despite being in danger of earning a yellow-card suspension, and Christen Press came on for Rapinoe (in the 97th). But it’s a fair argument to say that the earlier introduction of Lloyd, Press and potentially Mal Pugh in the second half could have given the U.S. the boost it needed to make this game less of a nail-biter than it was. What’s more, if Rapinoe and Heath are going to start on Friday vs. France, why play them for 97 minutes against Spain?
Here’s what Ellis said when asked about her substitution decisions: “You can’t just live cautiously, I think. You’re in a knockout game. You have to coach in the moment and make those decisions. It felt that we started to gain momentum, and as a coach you have to read that moment because a player can look absolutely fatigued, and then suddenly things change and they get your legs again. I think as a coach you have to know your players and read those moments.
“So that was part of the decision to persist with the players we had,” she continued. “Because I think there was momentum, and some of them actually grew into the second half. It’s three days less [rest than Spain], it’s hot, it’s physically demanding out there in terms of the atmosphere of what we were in, but I think some of the players actually got their second wind, so to speak. So that’s probably why we waited a little bit in terms of the substitutions.”
How concerned should people be about goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher?
Spain’s ninth-minute goal came after a disaster in the U.S. back. Naeher waited and waited on the ball, then passed it centrally to Becky Sauerbrunn, who was under pressure. Spain won it, and forward Jenni Hermoso hit a gorgeous strike past Naeher to make it 1-1–the first goal the U.S. conceded all tournament.
Perhaps the most concerning thing (besides the goal itself) was that within five minutes Naeher sent a similar pass right up the middle to one of her heavily pressured teammates. This was the first time a U.S. goalkeeper other than Hope Solo or Briana Scurry had started a Women's World Cup knockout game since 1991 (Mary Harvey), and questions remain about whether Naeher is a weak link in the U.S. team. Scurry herself said she was a couple months ago, and Solo was in the stadium on Monday night working for the BBC but also providing a literal glimpse of what could have been had Solo not been fired from U.S. Soccer in 2016.
Naeher hasn’t had that much action in this tournament, but her whiff against Chile that allowed the ball to go in the net (it was waived off for offside) didn’t help matters. She did have some better moments as the Spain game progressed, but the questions will remain.
“Of course we never want any mistakes,” Rapinoe said afterward, “But they’re going to happen, and it’s O.K. Obviously if it does happen, I think the way the team responded was great. As a team we have everyone’s back like that. I think for her to obviously understand what she did wrong, what she should have done better there, but also to leave it with this game. But the most important thing: The team rallied around, had a good performance, and we’re on to Paris.”
If Rapinoe sounded a bit Belichickian there, we’ll forgive her. Bill Belichick never would have used the term S--tshow Circus, which we can only hope goes viral in the next three crazy hype-filled days ahead of USA-France.