The quarterfinal to end all quarterfinals, or whatever hyperbole you choose to inject into the event, very nearly didn’t happen.
For the supposition that the United States would be meeting France at that stage of this Women’s World Cup, practically carved in stone back when the draw was held in early December, an awful lot of things had to bounce right on Sunday and Monday for it to actually happen.
First, France only just survived a veteran Brazilian team, or outlasted them more like, grinding out a victory in extra time after several close escapes.
And on Monday, the Americans were the beneficiaries of two penalty kicks in their 2-1 victory over plucky upstarts Spain. The first, a foul against Tobin Heath in the seventh minute, was right and proper. The second, on Rose Lavelle, who gratefully crashed to earth after she was grazed on the knee by Virginia Torrecilla, was awfully generous to the USA, and surprisingly stood even after it was re-adjudicated by the Video Assistant Referee.
Megan Rapinoe, who otherwise had a forgettable game, converted both. And it was enough to overcome Jenni Hermoso’s beautiful equalizer just a few minutes after the first penalty, when a defensive miscue between Becky Sauerbrunn and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher gifted Spain an open shot.
It was all much too close to comfort. For France and the United States.
And it underscored that there’s a desperately thin line between managing your squad and its workload over the course of a long tournament and taking an opponent too lightly. It is even more true now than in 2015 – when the Americans won the World Cup but slogged through the group stage, had trouble breaking down Colombia in the round of 16 and scraped by China in the quarterfinal – that very few outcomes are a given.
You had to wonder, then, about U.S. head coach Jill Ellis’s decision to sit midfielder Lindsey Horan, perhaps her best overall player and certainly the biggest two-way contributor. Sure, Horan was a yellow card away from missing the quarterfinal and Samantha Mewis made for an excellent, albeit more defensive-minded, alternative. But it was strange all the same.
“I think people get hung up on starters,” Ellis explained herself after the game. “Lindsey had started every game. It wasn’t that, it was just a decision on what we felt we needed but Lindsey is very much a starter. I think we have multiple starters in that regard.”
Similarly, questions were asked about the decisions not to make any substitutions until the 85th minute on a hot day when several players were dragging – not least striker Alex Morgan, who was hobbled and had taken a savage kicking from the Spanish defenders. Ellis, after all, had powerhouse supersub striker Carli Lloyd, who thrives in such a game, laying in wait on the bench. What’s more, there are just three days to recover before the French await on Friday.
“You can’t just live cautiously,” Ellis said. “I think when 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 I think as a coach you have to read that moment. Because a player can look absolutely fatigued and then suddenly things change and they get their legs again.”
At any rate, Spain, playing in its first-ever knockout game at just its second World Cup, gave the USA more trouble than it had likely anticipated. For all the Americans’ depth and abundant skill and athleticism, they relied on moxie and luck to eke this one out.
“You can talk tactics, but just the heart and the grit and resolve, that’s a big part of World Cup soccer,” Ellis said. “No game is ever easy in this tournament. We know that. We’ve learned that.”
“Sometimes you’re going to win dirty,” added Sauerbrunn, “and you need to have heart, and you need to grind it out sometimes. And this was a hard-fought victory, and we know that if we need to we have that in our back pocket as well.”
All the same, this is likely not how they would have anticipated setting up their big showdown with France in a quarterfinal that may well decide the World Cup title. But whatever you make of the approach against Spain, the Americans live to fight another day.
That day is Friday, when they face another team that just learned the hard way that there can no longer be any assumptions made at the Women’s World Cup.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @Leander Alphabet.
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