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REIMS, France — Heading into 2019, the defending World Cup champion United States women’s national team had faced all but two of the 23 other nations competing at this summer’s tournament in France.
One of the outliers was Cameroon. The other was Spain, the opponent that the Americans will meet here on Monday with a quarterfinal berth on the line.
La Roja is universally considered an up-and-coming team in women’s soccer circles, and for good reason. Spain, the longtime men’s power that finally won its first World Cup early this decade, has started to take its other senior squad – and the women’s game in general – seriously in recent years. And with first-class infrastructure – think coaches, stadiums, and training facilities – already in place, it has been able to close the gap on the elite teams considerably in short order.
Jill Ellis knew it. So the U.S. coach, anticipating a potential knockout round meeting on her sport’s biggest stage, was eager to schedule the Spaniards early this year. The match happened in January, with Ellis’ side prevailing 1-0 on a Christen Press goal in what some might have considered a meaningless friendly at the time. On Monday, the lessons learned that day may end up proving invaluable.
“It was really actually purposeful why we wanted to play them earlier in the year,” Ellis said after the U.S. rolled past Sweden on Thursday to close out the group stage. “You get a sense of a team, and obviously a good team ... we’ll need to have a very good preparation and performance to do well against them.”
The Spaniards posted a 1-1-1 record to finish as runners-up in Group B, losing only to heavyweight Germany by a single goal, one of just two they’ve conceded so far. It marked the first time the country advanced to the second round after making its World Cup debut four years ago.
Their progress at the youth level is even more pronounced: Last year, La Roja won FIFA’s under-17 Women’s World Cup, while the U-20s finished second in their own age group.
“Their women’s program has gotten increasingly better through the years,” U.S. defender Kelley O’Hara told reporters on Saturday. And as much as there is a sense that their senior squad is stuck between generations – all-time top scorer Vero Boquete is no longer with the national team – and not quite ready for primetime yet, Spain can still cause the Americans problems.
Like the men’s team that won the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Spain plays a distinct style. Unlike powerful and direct foes such as Canada, England, France and Germany, Spain passes teams to death.
They rarely lose the ball; they out-possessed the Americans in that January match with their own brand of the “tiki-taka” ethos that Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez popularized with the national team.
“Incredible team,” said USWNT veteran Ali Krieger. “Very crafty, very technical, very smart on the ball and intelligent in their decision-making.”
“They’re super technical,” Press added. “They want to go through you on the ground, right through the middle of the field.”
The U.S. hasn’t conceded a goal so far at this World Cup, but that’s not the same as being perfect. If there’s any area they can improve upon, it’s not giving the ball away cheaply. Sweden was unable to capitalize on those errors in the group finale. Spain isn’t quite as good, but they might be better set up to punish those turnovers.
“They’re very good at finding different seams,” center back Becky Sauerbrunn said. “It’s something our back line will have to be vigilant about.”
Still, the U.S remains the heavy favorite, in this match and overall. Both Krieger and O’Hara noted that Ellis’ consistent message has been to control their own performance rather than worry about what any specific opponent does well. Fellow vet Carli Lloyd summed up her team’s collective mentality after the last match.
“We know what they’re about, we know they’re good on the ball, they’re technical, but for me, I don’t really care who we’re playing,” Lloyd said.
“Bring it on.”
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