It wasn’t easy, and at times there was doubt, but defending champion the US can look ahead to a mouthwatering quarterfinal clash against host France after a 2-1 win over a resolute Spain.
In the US’ toughest challenge at the Women’s World Cup so far, two Megan Rapinoe penalties, one in each half, secured progress to the last eight.
It was widely believed that the Americans would not be sternly tested until the quarterfinals, at an anticipated clash in Paris on Friday, but Spain was far from the obliging opponent many had expected.
The US’ defense wobbled, an attack regarded as the most potent in the competition was stifled, and for much of the match Spain was the US’ equal. So successful was Spain in frustrating the Americans that Jill Ellis’ side had to rely on a late, and much questioned, penalty to see off a team competing in the knockout stages of the World Cup for the first time.
When Spain conceded a fifth-minute penalty — Maria Leon bringing down Tobin Heath in the box — it seemed as if the US would go on to accrue another healthy scoreline, just as it did in the group stages.
Ellis’ team had qualified for the last 16 having scored 18 goals in three games and not conceded, becoming the first team in World Cup history to qualify for the knockout stages with a +18 goal difference.
But before this tournament questions were raised about the US’ defense and, for the first time, it was put through its paces and breached. France, a team with forward players who could cause the Americans real problems, will undoubtedly already have taken note.
In trying to play out from defense, Becky Sauerbrunn lost possession on the edge of her box and Spain pounced with a delightful finish from Jennifer Hermoso.
The defending champion created more chances — Rapinoe twice missed opportunities to regain the lead — but so too did Spain, catching out the Americans’ high defensive line on a couple of occasions.
Spain’s ploy of slowing the pace of the game by keeping possession worked until Leon challenged Rose Lavelle inside the box and the referee, without hesitation, pointed at the spot.
Though it appeared to be the slightest of contacts, a VAR check rubber stamped the decision and Rapinoe coolly slotted home for her third goal of the competition.
In theory it should have been a far simpler assignment for the US, the most successful country in the competition’s history. Spain may be a passionate football nation — the men won the World Cup in 2010 — but for the most part the women’s game has been an afterthought.
After the 2015 Women’s World Cup, the national team players called for the sacking of then manager Ignacio Quereda and, after 27 years at the helm, Quereda stepped down from his post that summer.
Under his successor Jorge Vilda — at 37 the youngest coach at the tournament — much has changed and the tenacity and talent of the players on the pitch against a more illustrious opponent was testimony to the improvements made in recent years.
After defeat by two-time champion Germany in the group stages, Spain goalkeeper Sandra Panos said her team “can play with any team in the world” and so it proved on a balmy early afternoon in Reims.