No one expected the United States to glide its way to another World Cup championship, even after relatively carefree victories over Thailand, Chile and Sweden in group play. Sooner or later, someone was going to challenge the defending champion in a serious way.
If the USA is to win the tournament, you might look back on Monday’s round of 16 match with Spain, ranked 13th in the world. The Spanish side is one of the up-and-comers and it proved itself worthy against the dominant Americans.
Unlike the free-flowing offensive style that had categorized its play, Spain, playing in its first World Cup knockout match ever, held the USA in check, marking its strikers with exceptional physicality. But great teams usually find a way to prevail. And that’s what the USA did.
Megan Rapinoe, with all of her pink-haired gumption, made it possible for the USA to advance by scoring on a pair of penalty kicks for a 2-1 win. The winner came in the 75th minute.
“If they’ve had to win from penalties, it’s because we’ve really shown our worth, and we’ve given them a run for the money,” Spain coach Jorge Vilda said. “We have to be really positive about our overall performance and what happened in the match.
“We’re going to keep growing and progressing and I think they should walk away with their heads held really high.”
Rapinoe’s winner was drilled into the lower left corner of the net after a long delay while officials were determining whether the penalty against Spain was justified.
“Spain is a very good team,” USA coach Jill Ellis said. “If you guys look back in all the games they played this year, like I have, they’ve dominated most of their opponents — in fact, all their opponents. This was a tricky game, probably the hardest game in the round of 16.”
Ellis is right. The Spaniards seemed to revel in the bodily contact that seemed to define the match. Certainly their motivation was to disrupt the USA, which pretty much did whatever it had wanted in its previous matches. Singled out for particular punishment was American star Alex Morgan.
“Honestly it’s a big character builder for us – and something that’s really going to help us moving forward in this tournament,” said USA’s Rose Lavelle, who was fouled in the box in the 71st minute to set up Rapinoe’s winner.
Early in the match it appeared as if the USA was in good shape. Spain tripped up Tobin Heath in the box, which sent Rapinoe to the line for her first penalty try. Just like the winner, she scored into the left corner.
But just two minutes later, a mistake by USA goalie Alyssa Naeher – she offered a poor outlet pass to defender Becky Sauerbrunn – gave Spain’s Lucia Garcia time to disrupt and then Jennifer Hermosa deposited it into the top right corner.
“I just tried to do a little bit too much,” Naeher said. “I probably shouldn’t have played that ball into a pressure pocket. Probably a little bit smarter decision to play it a little bit higher up the field.”
Once the game was tied, the tension built throughout the remainder of the match, each side pressing the other for an advantage until Rapinoe’s ultimate game-winner.
If there’s one aspect of the USA team that’s been questioned, its been its defense and Naeher. But it held tight when it had to.
“It was a lot of grit, lot of resolve. That mental piece,” Ellis said. “You can have all the tactics in the world, but that essence of self-belief, that’s critical. And these players have that.
“Those moments (Spain’s goal) can absolutely destroy a team or unravel a team. The mental capacity and strength of this team, they parked it and moved on, and that’s what you have to do in those moments.”
Now the world gets what it came to see: Friday’s match against France at Parc des Princes in Paris in the quarterfinals. The three-time World Cup champion, the four-time Olympic gold medalist, will be severely tested before a partisan crowd.
The Associated Press reports that the least expensive ticket for the match on StubHub.com is $681, while the most expensive is listed as $11,398. The quarterfinal Thursday between Norway and England has tickets as low as $33, with the most expensive ticket costing $170.