The U.S. didn’t so much win its Women’s World Cup game with Spain on Monday as it did escape it.
The Americans entered the elimination rounds of the tournament unchallenged, unscored upon and unbeaten. In 90 intense minutes, Spain ticked off the first two of those boxes and almost got the third before the U.S. prevailed 2-1 on the second of two Megan Rapinoe penalty kicks to advance to a long-anticipated quarterfinal showdown with France on Friday in Paris.
If the U.S. was happy to have survived, though, it was also thankful for the challenge Spain provided. Because after a group stage in which the Americans set a World Cup record by scoring 18 goals and tied one by not giving up a goal, even the players admitted everything had seemed too easy.
Spain changed that in a hurry.
“This game was really important for us,” said Alex Morgan, who was pounded by a physical Spanish defense. “A lot of teams have had that struggle match in group play. We didn’t.
Said coach Jill Ellis: “In terms of what this game gave us and the takeaways from it, massive.”
The U.S. never trailed Spain, but for 74 minutes the game was even. Until Monday, the Americans hadn’t gone more than 11 minutes without a lead.
The U.S. hadn’t given up a goal in this World Cup either but that streak lasted only nine minutes against Spain. After the U.S. took a 1-0 lead on Rapinoe’s first penalty kick in the seventh minute, Spain evened things when a poor pass from goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher to defender Becky Sauerbrunn was poked away by Lucia Garcia to forward Jennifer Hermoso, who lifted a shot over a back-peddling Naeher to tie the score.
For a team that hadn’t lost a game in 23 months, and hadn’t trailed in one at a World Cup in eight years, it was game on. And Ellis was heartened by how the team responded.
“Most of our veteran players have been in the pressure cooker in huge moments,” she said. “Tonight there was a lot of grit, a lot of resolve. That mental piece, you can have all the tactics in the world but that essence of self-belief, that’s critical. And these players have that.”
The U.S. outshot the Spaniards 12-5, outpossessed them, outpassed them and outdefended them. Yet, the game turned, as so many have in this World Cup, on slow-motion video review. When Rose Lavelle tumbled to the turf after being brushed by midfielder Virginia Torrecilla the 71st minute, Hungarian referee Katalin Kulcsar blew her whistle and pointed to the spot.
The video assistant referee then called down to Kulscar and advised her to have another look at Torrecilla’s challenge. And after reviewing the play at least a dozen times from multiple angles during a four-minute delay, Kulscar confirmed her call and Rapinoe calmly slotted a second penalty kick past a diving Sandra Panos and just inside the left post for the game winner.
“We practice these a lot,” said Rapinoe, whose first penalty-kick score came after Tobin Heath was brought down in the box by Maria Leon. “For us getting that routine and just going through that quite often and figuring out what that is, is extremely helpful.
Megan Rapinoe of the U.S. scores her team’s second goal against Spain from the penalty spot.(Marc Atkins / Getty Images)
Megan Rapinoe is congratulated by her U.S. teammates after scoring a goal Monday at the Women’s World Cup.(Franck Fife / AFP / Getty Images)
Spain’s forward Jennifer Hermoso (L) vies with United States’ defender Kelley O’Hara during the France 2019 Women’s World Cup round of sixteen football match between Spain and USA, on June 24, 2019, at the Auguste-Delaune stadium in Reims, northern France. (Photo by Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP)LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images ** OUTS - ELSENT, FPG, CM - OUTS * NM, PH, VA if sourced by CT, LA or MoD **(Lionel Bonaventure / AFP / Getty Images)
Hungarian referee Katalin Kulcsar talks with Spain’s Leila Ouahabi, second from left, and Sandra Panos after giving the U.S. a penalty kick.(Lionel Bonaveture / AFP / Getty Images)
Mandatory Credit: Photo by TOLGA BOZOGLU/EPA-EFE/REX (10320464ag) Megan Rapinoe (R) of USA in action against Marta Corredera (L) of Spain during the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019 round of 16 soccer match between Spain and USA at Reims, France, 24 June 2019. FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019, Reims, France - 24 Jun 2019 ** Usable by LA, CT and MoD ONLY **(Tolga Bozoglu / EPA)
Megan Rapinoe, left, of the U.S. scores the go-ahead goal on a penalty kick Monday at the Women’s World Cup.(Tolga Bozoglu / EPA / REX / Shutterstock)
US supporters cheer their team during the France 2019 Women’s World Cup round of sixteen between Spain and USA in Reims, France.(Lionel Bonaventure / AFP/Getty Images)
United States’ Julie Ertz, right, jumps for the ball with Spain’s Patri Guijarro, center, and Lucia Garcia during the Women’s World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Spain and United States at Stade Auguste-Delaune in Reims, France, Monday, June 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)(Thibault Camus / Associated Press)
REIMS, FRANCE - JUNE 24: Megan Rapinoe of the USA scores her sides first goal from the penalty spot during the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Round Of 16 match between Spain and USA at Stade Auguste Delaune on June 24, 2019 in Reims, France. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images) ** OUTS - ELSENT, FPG, CM - OUTS * NM, PH, VA if sourced by CT, LA or MoD **(Robert Cianflone / Getty Images)
U.S. midfielder Julie Ertz vies with Spain’s Alexia Putellas, left, and Virgina Torrecilla on Monday at the Women’s World Cup in Reims, France.(Lionel Bonaventure / AFP / Getty Images)
Jennifer Hermoso of Spain battles for possession with Julie Ertz of the U.S.(Marc Atkins / Getty Images)
Megan Rapinoe of the U.S. after receiving a yellow card from referee Katalin Kulcsar.(Robert Cianflone / Getty Images)
Virginia Torrecilla of Spain tackles Crystal Dunn of the U.S.(Robert Cianflone / Getty Images)
U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, left, makes a save in front of Spain’s Virginia Torrecilla.(Thibault Camus / Associated Press)
U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher makes a save in front of Spain’s Alexia Putellas.(Thibault Camus / Associated Press)
Spain’s Irene Paredes, right, defends against Megan Rapinoe of the U.S.(Alessandra Tarantino / Associated Press)
Spain goalkeeper Sandra Panos makes a save in front of Megan Rapinoe, front left, of the U.S.(Thibault Camus / Associated Press)
Tobin Heath of the U.S. lies on the ground in pain Monday during the Women’s World Cup round-of-16 game against Spain.(Alessandra Tarantino / Associated Press)
Megan Rapinoe of the U.S. scores for a 1-0 lead on a penalty kick in the seventh minute.(Tolga Bozoglu / EPA / REX / Shutterstock)
Kelley O’Hara, right, of the U.S. takes on Spain’s Andrea Falcon.(Tolga Bozoglu / EPA / REX / Shutterstock)
“Obviously, you can never replicate having a knockout-round game on the line.”
Asked what happened, Lavelle replied sheepishly.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I got a little kick in the shin and she called it. I was a little surprised [it was called] because it was definitely a physical match but at the same time, a foul’s a foul.
“I did get kicked. I didn’t flop.”
The Spaniards saw things differently, saying the penalty was a soft call.
“I actually think we deserved more,” said midfielder Vicky Losada, who left the field with a blackened right eye, the result of an elbow from a U.S. player that wasn’t ruled a foul. “But you know, sometimes football is like that.”
And victories can be like that, too — unattractive, inexplicable and defining.
“We grinded this one out,” Naeher said. “It’s the World Cup. There are no easy games left.”
Added Lavelle: “Sometimes you have to win ugly and you have to dig deep. That whole game was kind of all about grit and how much we could handle when things weren’t going our way.
“Honestly, it was a big character builder for us. It’s definitely going to help us moving forward in the tournament.”
On Tuesday, the top-ranked U.S. will be moving toward Paris and a showdown with No. 4 France, the game everyone has circled on their calendar, the game everyone has anticipated and the game Ellis, for one, can’t wait to play.
“It means more, it matters more, there’s more at stake,” she said. “And that’s why you do this.
“You don’t go into professional sports or coaching if you are not in it for those purposes and those reasons. It’s going to be an amazing game.”