USWNT Needs All The Help It Can Get To Overcome Dogged Spain In Round Of 16

The USWNT overcame a spirited, physical and tactically disciplined Spain to advance to the quarterfinals of the Women’s World Cup and setup an enthralling match with France, but the manner of the victory was hardly assuring. 

The U.S. required two penalties from captain Megan Rapinoe — one in the seventh minute and the next in the 76th — to overcome a defensive error that allowed Jennifer Hermoso to score the first goal against the USWNT of this tournament. 

Coming into the match, Spain had earned plaudits for controlling the center of the park while completing a myriad of passes — although entirely lacking any sort of cutting edge — during the group stage.

Alternatively, the U.S. had heavily relied on the width provided by wingers Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath to provide the incision, but neither Thailand, Chile nor Sweden had done enough to disrupt the rhythm of the players initially getting the ball out wide. 

Spain’s tactic then was to push forward its defensive and midfield lines while its own forward, Jennifer Hermoso, was deployed as a false nine to both pressure the center backs and negate the influence of Julie Ertz in the holding position.

Initially, it appeared to be business as usual for the States. Center back Abby Dahlkemper picked out Heath with a ball over the top, immediately exposing Spanish left back Leila Ouahabi and ultimately resulting in an overcommitment from covering center back Mapi León.

Heath took the ball around León, but not before the defender inadvertently planted her foot on Heath’s. It was a clear penalty, and Rapinoe calmly converted from the spot. 

But that U.S. calmness would immediately dissipate at the other end.

When trying to build out the back, Alyssa Naeher went with the customary ball to Becky Sauerbrunn. However, Spain immediately sensed what was coming, and Sauerbrunn’s ill-advised turn into danger resulted in a loss of possession that was exquisitely punished by Hermoso. 

It could’ve all been so easily avoided, but the finish was picture perfect from the Atletico Madrid forward.  

The next hour of the match was played with crunching intensity and on the finest of margins. Spain flew into tackles and generally upset the U.S. from forming any sort of midfield rhythm. However, the U.S. still dazzled on occasion and played with a positivity that was most directly personified by Rose Lavelle.

A second goal from Spain never seemed imminent, but La Roja menaced on the counter while visibly frustrating the likes of Alex Morgan and Ertz. The battle waged and an absolute classic appeared on the cards, but then the U.S. was handed a reprieve.

Lavelle went down in the box in the 71st minute after a clumsily high challenge from Virginia Torrecilla. Contact was minimal, and it looked like Lavelle was going to continue to chase the ball before thinking better of it and throwing herself to ground.

Regardless, “there was contact,” and although play stopped for five minutes while the ref checked the monitor to review the call and Spain employed the dark arts to ice the penalty taker, Rapinoe eventually stepped up to convert her second. 

USWNT manager Jill Ellis was finally moved to make her first substitution in the 85th minute, taking out the ineffective Morgan for Carli Lloyd. It was strange because after looking the stronger side in the first half, it was actually Spain that edged possession (50.4 percent) in the second half. Ellis never really provided an answer for anything.

Rather than answering questions about this side, this Round of 16 encounter only served to magnify them. The ultimate cross-examination with France now looms on Friday, June 28 at the Parc des Princes in Paris.

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