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Women’s World Cup: U.S. isn’t underestimating Spain’s rise in soccer

USWNT, US Soccer agree to mediation in equal pay lawsuit
The U.S. women’s national soccer team celebrates following a 2-0 victory over Sweden in World Cup group play on Thursday. The United States plays Spain in the round of 16 on Monday.
(Alex Grimm / TNS)

The rest of the world is catching up to the U.S. women’s soccer national team.

That progress hasn’t shown up on the scoreboard yet, where the Americans have lost one game in the last 23 months. But with domestic leagues growing around the globe and national federations increasing their investments in women’s soccer, the level of play in the Women’s World Cup has never been better.

“The quality of every team, top to bottom, continues to get better,” said U.S. forward Megan Rapinoe. “All these teams that maybe in the past haven’t been so formidable are getting so much stronger.”

The U.S. faces one of those teams Monday when it meets Spain in a round-of-16 game in Reims, where the Americans opened their World Cup with a 13-0 victory over Thailand on June 11. The winner will play France in the quarterfinals Friday in Paris.

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Few teams have improved more than Spain since the last world championship. Playing in the tournament for the first time four years ago, Spain went quietly, scoring two goals and earning only a tie to finish last in its group.

Since then, the women’s game has grown tremendously. Barcelona, which finished second in the country’s domestic league, last month became the first Spanish team to reach the Champions League final and in 2018 the U-17 national team won its World Cup and the U-20s finished second in that tournament.

“There’s less distance between the top teams,” midfielder Alexia Putellas said in Spanish. “When we play them, we can see what that level is like. And we know the work we have to do to get there.”

U.S. coach Jill Ellis says Spain’s experience is reflected in a major expansion of women’s soccer throughout Europe. Of the nine European teams that qualified for this World Cup, five won their groups and eight advanced to the second round, making up half the field of 16.

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Half of those teams are already in the quarterfinals.

“There are a lot of programs, a lot of teams now that have the backing of federations,” said Ellis, who will coach her 124th game with the national team Monday, tying April Heinrichs’ U.S. record. “To have a professional league is critical. And then to be in a culture that just embraces football, you see this with Holland, you see this with Italy.

“It’s a natural progression in terms of the development in these countries. Because they eat, sleep and breathe soccer. You see the sophistication tactically. You see the technical capacity.”

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Spain wasn’t on the U.S. radar until January, when the teams played for the first time, with Christen Press’ goal in the 54th minute the difference on a cold, windy night in Alicante, Spain. The conditions will be different Monday, with forecasts calling for temperatures in the mid-80s.

“It was critical that we played Spain,” Ellis said. “We don’t have a history with them. To know a team, to get out on the field with them, I actually pushed hard to get that game because I thought it was important for us.”

But that game will also gave Spain confidence heading into Monday’s rematch. Sixteen of the 17 players Ellis used in that friendly are on the team she brought to France and Spain held its own then, outpossessing and outpassing the U.S.

Through the first round at the World Cup, only the U.S. has had more time of possession or taken more shots than Spain, which finished second to Germany in its group.

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“They’re extremely technical. Really good on the ball. Very dangerous,” U.S. defender Kelley O’Hara said. “We’re going to have to keep really tight lines and make sure that we don’t let them get a rhythm.”

While Spain will be looking for rhythm after failing to score in its final two group-play games — two of its three goals in the first game came on penalty kicks — the U.S. is on a roll. The Americans’ 18 goals in their three group-stage games are a World Cup record and for the first time in U.S. history they didn’t concede any, running their shutout streak to seven games and 630 minutes dating to an April friendly with Australia.

In World Cup play the U.S. has pitched shutouts in seven of its last nine games.

All those numbers put the pressure firmly on the backs of the top-ranked Americans. For Spain, a goal would be great and a win would be historic. But even with a loss the team goes home having done something no Spanish women’s team has done: advance to the knockout phase of the World Cup.

The U.S. not only must win, but do it convincingly.

Given the rise of Europe, it may not be that way forever.

“It’s a matter of time,” Ellis said.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com | Twitter: @kbaxter11

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