The US are through to the quarter-final of the World Cup after a less-than-convincing 2-1 win over Spain. It wasn’t pretty for the Americans, and the reigning champions finally look vulnerable. Here are the key takeaways from Monday’s round of 16 match.
USA v France is the spectacle the Women’s World Cup deserves
From the moment the World Cup draw was made, everyone seemed to be talking about the possibility that the host nation, France, could face the No 1-ranked team, the US.
Now it’s really happening. Not only will the match send a favorite packing, it should be a brilliant display of two top-quality teams with massive fan support squaring off.
The players welcome the hype. “I hope it’s huge and crazy,” Megan Rapinoe said. “This is the best game – this is what everybody wanted, we want it, seems like they’re up for it. You guys [the media] are up for it, and all the fans. Maybe it’ll be a pretty even split with the fans in the stadium – we’ve been traveling pretty deep in this World Cup. I hope it’s just a total shitshow circus. It’s gonna be totally awesome and these are the biggest games you dream about as a kid.”
Have Spain offered a blueprint to beat the US?
For all the talk of Spain being a technical team, their gameplan on Monday seemed to be more about pestering the US, and the favorites never looked settled. Alex Morgan in particular was the target of an extra little dig every time she challenged for the ball, and by the end of the game it appeared all those knocks were catching up. “We were trying to tell the ref that, especially with Alex, it was upper back every single time,” Rapinoe said of Spain’s fouling.
At one point, Morgan could be seen counting to the ref, apparently showing how many times she had been kneed in the back. That’s why the penalty that Rose Lavelle earned was so surprising. If there was contact, it was minimal – but public opinion from pundits and fans on social media has been split. “I got kicked in the shin,” Lavelle said when asked if she felt the call was correct. “A foul’s a foul, so I guess it’s a penalty, yeah.”
VAR hasn’t exactly shone in this tournament, and those who disagree with the penalty will be annoyed the referee didn’t overturn her decision. But if “clear and obvious” is supposed to be the standard, perhaps VAR worked better in this match than others – with opinion divided as to whether Virginia Torrecilla made contact with Lavelle, it was probably best to let the on-field call stand.
France, who await in the quarter-finals, are a much stronger and more athletic team than Spain, and if they go after the US players like Spain did, it could be a tough match for the champions.
… But this may be just what the US needed
USA’s utter dominance of their group games led many pundits to declare that the Americans would stroll to the final. But winning a World Cup is never going to be cushy all the way through, and it was unclear how the Americans would cope with adversity.
The US response against Spain wasn’t all that convincing. But it may be that they needed a tougher match to fortify their resolve. Becky Sauerbrunn said as much after the Spain game. “It was good to know we could grind out a victory and if we needed to win dirty, we could win dirty,” she said.
The Americans have the oldest squad in France, but they do have a slew of players – such as Lavelle, Samantha Mewis, Lindsey Horan and Abby Dahlkemper – making their World Cup debuts. The newbies gained valuable lessons on Monday.
“When you get to the knockout round, it’s so much more pressure and it’s so much more tense out there,” Rapinoe said. “Everything matters, every play matters, and every wave of the game is important. Halfway through the second half it was like, ‘We need to take this up a notch.’ There’s quite a few of us that have been there and realize those moments, and that experience was good for us today.”
The defense narrative isn’t going away
Who was at fault for Spain’s goal? Was it goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher for playing the ball to Becky Sauerbrunn, who had her back turned to her opponent? Or was it Sauerbrunn, who didn’t respond quickly enough to the pressure from forward Lucia Garcia?
Sauerbrunn accepted the blame after the match, saying she tried to play through the pressure rather than clear the ball. She also fielded questions about Naeher, insisting that the doubts about the goalkeeper were more about building narratives in the media than anything else.
She may be right, but it doesn’t mean those narratives are going away. The scariest moment of the group stage for the US was a Naeher gaff on a Chile set-piece that would have resulted in a goal without the offside flag. And Spain’s goal, of course, came from an error too.
Rapinoe, however, said mistakes will happen – it’s all about how the US respond to them. “Those things are going to happen,” she said. “Obviously we don’t want them to happen but when they do, we can’t be, ‘Don’t do that!’ and dwelling on it – it’s like, ‘No shit, don’t do that.’ Just stay in it and have each other’s back.”