The U.S. was far from its best in the last-16 encounter, but managed to sneak through thanks to two penalties from Megan Rapinoe
Before the World Cup even began, fans had June 28 circled on their calendar.
If everything played out the way it was expected, the U.S. would take on hosts France that day in a dream quarterfinal, a game that would see the two tournament favorites clash in Paris.
That game is now a reality, but it took nearly everything out of the U.S. to get there.
Jill Ellis’s side was surprisingly pushed to the limit by Spain, with the Spanish outfit done in by naive defending in a game where they successfully rattled the U.S. throughout.
Were it not for two poor challenges in the box from Spain defenders, they may have secured one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history. Instead, they will have to rue a major missed opportunity in a 2-1 defeat to the U.S.
“We were tested,” U.S. defender Abby Dahlkemper said after the game. “That was a really good team that we played against and that was a gritty performance by us.”
Just like every other game so far this tournament, the U.S. came out swinging early. Megan Rapinoe’s seventh-minute penalty saw the team continue a trend of scoring inside the first 12 minutes of every game at the World Cup thus far.
But unlike the team’s previous three games, this time, the USWNT’s opponent punched back.
Spain took advantage of some disastrous play out of the back just two minutes after Rapinoe’s opener, and found a quick equalizer through Jenni Hermoso’s strike.
That goal left the U.S. staggered, particularly its back line.
Goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, in her first tournament as the starter, was partially at fault on Spain’s opener as she played Becky Sauerbrunn into a tight spot from which she gave the ball away.
“I just need to make a smarter decision and not play it into a pressure pocket,” Naeher said. “It would have probably been better just to put the it up the field a little bit more.”
The mistake clearly rattled Naeher, who nearly turned the ball over again minutes later before another shaky moment in which she headed a ball out that she could have clearly handled.
Further forward, the team’s attack was not at its best either, particularly Rapinoe. After her early goal from the spot Rapinoe struggled mightily, turning the ball over on the flank and failing to spark the U.S. offense the way she normally does.
“Not a great game for me personally,” Rapinoe admitted. “I think the right back (Marta Corredera) did a great job, I don’t think I beat her one time one-v-one.”
Alex Morgan, meanwhile, went down with an injury midway through the first half, possibly the same problem that saw her sit for the second half against Sweden last week. Morgan returned to the game, but did not seem to be at 100 percent and continued to be battered throughout the game.
“I don’t remember them being this physical, this aggressive,” Morgan said. “For me that was a little different, I wasn’t expecting that.”
Spain, for its part, executed its plan to perfection, pressing the U.S. at selective opportunities and matching its intensity from the first whistle.
Just as frustration appeared close to boiling over, the U.S. was bailed out.
With 20 minutes left to play, Rose Lavelle went down in the box under minimal contact from Virginia Torrecilla. For the second time in the game, referee Katalin Kulcsar pointed to the spot. After a lengthy VAR review, the call was confirmed and Rapinoe, once again, stepped up to the spot and buried her shot.
There will be plenty of questions asked of the U.S. after this game but in a knockout tournament, ultimately, survival is all that counts. The USWNT will live to fight another day but bigger tests lie ahead, particurally on Friday in Paris.
“It wasn’t our best match and sometimes you have to win ugly,” Lavelle said. “I think it’s a big character builder for us and it’s something that’s really going to help us moving forward in the tournament.”
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