They didn’t dominate. They certainly didn’t look invincible. Both of their goals came on penalty kicks and the second one was on a questionable foul.
But, in the end, the only thing showing on the Women’s World Cup bracket is the United States beat Spain 2-1 to reach a Friday quarterfinal in Paris, where host France awaits.
The bracket will not show that the Spaniards’ smart tactics and relentless defense neutralized the Americans’ high-octane offense, holding it scoreless from the open field. It will not show that superstar Alex Morgan was rendered virtually invisible, as she struggled with the physical play of Spain’s defenders.
Nor will it show that an ill-advised clearance by U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and careless play by Becky Sauerbrunn led to the Spain goal.
But U.S. coach Jill Ellis and her team are well aware of what happened, and how fortunate they were to hang on and advance thanks to two nicely-placed penalty shots by Megan Rapinoe and a never-say-die attitude.
“You can talk tactics, but heart, grit and resolve — that’s a big part of World Cup soccer,” Ellis said in a TV interview after the game. “No game is every easy in this tournament. We know that, we’ve learned that. So, part of it is the mental piece, and I thought they were great.”
In a way, Monday’s hard-fought clash is exactly what the U.S. players needed, a bright red wake-up call to remind them that they are beatable, that other nations are catching up and that racking up 13 goals on Thailand means nothing if you can’t score on the good teams. The Americans outshot the Spaniards 12-5, but failed to finish.
Anybody surprised that Spain was deadlocked with the United States through 75 minutes has not been paying attention to the Spanish team.
“La Roja,” as the Spanish team is nicknamed, is ranked No. 13 in the world and cruised through qualifying by outscoring Austria, Finland, Serbia and Israel by a combined score of 25-2. Back in January, in their only meeting before Monday’s game, the Americans and Spaniards met in a friendly in the Spanish city of Alicante and the score was tied 0-0 at the half before Christen Press scored to give the United States a 1-0 win.
Through the group stage of this World Cup, Spain dominated possession and its lone loss was 1-0 to Germany. So, it was not shocking to see Jennifer Hermoso tie Monday’s game 1-1 in the ninth minute — the first goal the United States conceded in 647 minutes. Spain is a good team, and getting better. The Spanish U17 team is the reigning world champion and the U20 team was runner up in its World Cup last year. Watch out for Spain in the 2023 World Cup.
Spain’s rise is the result of a big-time investment of energy and resources by the Spanish federation to women’s soccer in that country. Ten players on the Spanish World Cup team are teammates on FC Barcelona, a club that drew a crowd of 60,000 for a regular-season game against Atletico Madrid.
The rest of the world should take note. If you invest in women’s sports, you will get results.
The U.S. Soccer Federation figured that out long ago, which is why the United States has won three World Cups and favored to win a fourth. But still, there is more work to be done to pay members of the U.S. women’s team fairly and keep them atop the sport.
The talent gap around the globe is closing, as we saw on Monday. Friday’s quarterfinal match against France will be no easier. In fact, it should be more challenging. The French team, like the U.S. team, is loaded with talent and its stylish play is befitting a nation known for its fashion sense (although, not sure their white jerseys and socks dotted with small hexagons were a good idea).
It should be a thrilling game with a spot in the semifinal – likely against England -- on the line.
Both teams are coming off close wins. The French needed 107 minutes to get a winning goal against Brazil on Sunday. Amandine Henry showed why she wears the captain’s armband when she came through with the winning shot.
Like the Americans against Spain, the French did not play up to their reputation against a gritty Brazil team. But they found a way to advance, and that’s really all that matters in the knockout rounds. It’s not about winning pretty. It’s about winning.