U.S. Women move on to quarterfinals with shaky 2-1 win over Spain

If the USWNT confirmed their dominance with the 2-0 result over ninth-ranked Sweden to close out the Group Stage, this 2-1 win over thirteenth-ranked Spain confirmed their versatility. Also, their vulnerability.

For the first time in over six-hundred minutes (yes, you read that correctly), the American side allowed a goal. But it wasn’t the goal that made the U.S. look beatable. It was the way that the Spanish side was able to control the ball, earning an almost equal time of possession. The USWNT had averaged well over sixty percent in the Group Stage. The Spanish side were able dispossess the Americans faster than any challenger thus far, as well as linking passes together in the midfield.

Most impressive for the Spanish squad was the overt physicality and cohesion of their back line, which played an extremely disciplined game for all ninety-plus minutes, allowing only twelve shots by the Americans, three of which were on target. It was by far the lowest tally of the World Cup for the USWNT thus far.

The Americans did continue their habit of scoring early, with Megan Rapinoe converting a penalty kick in the seventh minute on a low-driven ball that skimmed the turf into the left corner, just inside the post. But after Spain equalized only two minutes later on a Jennifer Hermoso goal, the result of a terribly lazy pass by American goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, the game settled into a game of tug-of-war in the midfield. At times, the Americans looked faster and more athletic, but the structured defensive game plan of the Spanish side frustrated their efforts time and again.

All that changed in the seventy-fifth minute, as Rose Lavelle was fouled on a clumsy, spikes-up challenge in the box. Initially, it looked like Alex Morgan would take the penalty for the U.S. but after video review confirmed the penalty, Megan Rapinoe stepped in, instead. Rapinoe then teed up the penalty and converted again. On the EXACT same strike. I’m not saying that she took a similar approach. The second penalty kick was an identical ball, blistered just above the turf and just inside the left post. The only difference was that on the second go around, Spanish goalkeeper Sandra Paños guessed correctly, diving quickly toward the left. She never got close.

According to Morgan, the decision to go to Rapinoe was made by Coach Ellis: “She gave me the ball, but it’s ultimately the coach’s decision. The ball went back to [Rapinoe], and it went in the back of the net.”

It’s hard to argue with success. But you need to wonder if Alex Morgan is more beat up than she’s admitting. The Spanish defense was especially hard on the leading American goal scorer, seeming content to rough her up all game, yet somehow avoiding any significant sanction from the referees.

The 2-1 win sends the Americans into the quarterfinals and a much-anticipated showdown with fourth-ranked host nation France on Friday. It won’t be an easy matchup. The USWNT is 2-2-1 against France in their last five meetings, with France winning two of the last three, both international friendlies. It should shape up to be one of the highlights of the World Cup.

Coach Jill Ellis is something of a tinkerer when it comes to the starting lineup, but for this upcoming matchup, it seems likely that she will go with her most cohesive unit, as opposed to flashiest. I expect we might see a few more of the veterans in the starting eleven, in hopes that their ability to link up passes and maintain possession will tilt the odds in favor of the American side.

Whether Ellis favors youth and speed or experience and composure, this match is sure to be one of the highlights of the World Cup.

Image Source: AP Images/Thibault Camus

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