REIMS, France — The beautiful game, this most certainly wasn’t. But the United States women’s national team will still more than take Monday’s hard-fought 2-1 victory over plucky Spain, a win that sends them to the World Cup quarterfinals and sets up a much-anticipated match against host nation France on Friday in Paris.
For most of the round of 16 encounter with La Roja at Stade Auguste-Delaune, the tournament favorites’ passage to the final eight looked anything but certain. Any thoughts that the Americans would roll after Megan Rapinoe put them ahead by converting a seventh-minute penalty were extinguished when Spain punished a defensive error two minutes later.
It was the first goal the defending champions had conceded at this World Cup, and only another – and let’s be honest, questionable – late penalty call converted by Rapinoe with less than 15 minutes to play prevented the tilt from going to extra time. Still, for a team with its heart set on repeating, this was a necessary test to have passed.
“We knew we could be a little sharper,” USWNT coach Jill Ellis said after her team failed to score from the run of play for the first time at France 2019. “This was a tricky game, probably the hardest game in the 16 round. So for me, I think it was good. I think it has actually energized our players.”
With temperatures hovering around 90 degrees at kickoff, energy was often in short supply during the match. It didn’t help that Spain kicked the Americans all over the field, including in the box to set up both scores. After storming through the first round with decisive results over Thailand, Chile and Sweden, Spain provided a rude welcome to the knockout stage – and not just because of their aggressive tactics.
“I give Spain so much credit; they’re a great team, and that was a really tough game,” said rugged central midfielder Samantha Mewis, who kept her spot in central midfield at the expense of the more attack-minded Lindsey Horan. “This tournament isn’t supposed to be easy.”
“Grinding out games is something that everyone has to do at the World Cup,” Mewis added. “It’s a testament to the growth of the game. All these countries are really, really good.”
And if not for the late penalty call, the outcome could have been different. Given how Hungarian referee Katalin Kulcsar handled the match, letting most of Spain’s stout tackling go, it was hard to see a second penalty being called when Rose Lavelle was sent tumbling late. The first one, a trip on Tobin Heath, was clear as day. But the contact on Lavelle was less egregious than other potential fouls that went unpunished.
But Kulcsar upheld her decision even after the video assistant referee requested a second look, and Rapinoe once again drove the ball beyond the reach of Spanish goalkeeper Sandra Paños.
“I was a little surprised because it was a physical match,” Lavelle said of the call. “I did get kicked. I didn’t flop. So I figured if she saw the contact, it would be a foul.”
It was, and now France awaits. Seen as the biggest threat to the Americans’ title hopes, Les Bleues are coming off their own bruising round of 16 triumph against Brazil. Both teams will arrive at the Parc des Princes battle-tested now, following games that challenged their character and resolve as much as their skills.
“I think sometimes you have to win ugly,” Lavelle said. “That whole game was kinda all about grit and how much we could handle when things weren’t going our way.”
“We welcome a challenge, and that’s exactly what today was,” added Mewis. “This tournament isn’t supposed to be easy. It’s these type of things that let us know that we’re strong and we can grind through something. So I think we’re going to take a lot from this. It gives us a lot of faith in ourselves.”
Even if it wasn’t easy on the eyes.
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