The United States Women’s National Team needed two penalties to advance from the World Cup Round of 16, beating Spain 2–1 in a hard-fought but unconvincing victory that won’t have built any confidence in the U.S. camp. Two Megan Rapinoe strikes from the spot were just enough to set up a giant quarterfinal match-up against host nation France on Friday in Paris at the Parc des Princes at 3 p.m. ET.
In the second-ever meeting between the USWNT and Spain, after having played out a 1–0 U.S. win back in January, Jill Ellis made one change from the 2–0 group stage victory over Sweden, with Julie Ertz returning in midfield at the expense of Lindsey Horan.
Having seen quarterfinal opponents France narrowly squeeze past Brazil in extra time last night, the U.S. had its own warning shot fired directly into the face, quite literally, in the opening 60 seconds. A cross from the left ended up fizzing out to Patricia Guijarro — one of 10 players in the Spain squad to play their club soccer at Barcelona — on the edge of the box. Guijarro struck first time only to find Becky Sauerbrunn putting her head on the line to block the early effort.
Tobin Heath’s first foray into the box ended in her being tripped to earn the U.S. a penalty — the 20th awarded at the 2019 tournament — that was clinically dispatched to Sandra Paños’ right with the Barcelona goalkeeper guessing the opposite way.
The lead didn’t last long with Spain hitting back two minutes later, capitalizing on some slack interplay between goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and Sauerbrunn on the edge of the area. Having been sold short, Lucía García took advantage of Naeher’s lazy pass and picked the pocket of the Utah Royals defender before finding Jennifer Hermoso, the leading Spanish goalscorer in this squad and the nation’s fourth all-time. “Jenni,” as she’s more commonly known, scored her third goal of the tournament, beautifully lifting the ball over Naeher and inch perfect into top right-hand corner. The ninth-minute strike was the first the U.S. had conceded at the World Cup.
The game continued to stretch with Rose Lavelle slicing a probing through ball in behind the Spanish back line to the onrushing Rapinoe in the 13th minute, an early nomination for pass of the competition. Rapinoe tried to tuck a shot inside the near post, forcing a low save from Paños.
The U.S. continued to probe, with Crystal Dunn sending a couple of long balls over the top for Rapinoe to chase — an outlet continually tested throughout much of the first half — before more Heath wing play once again caused panic in the Spanish penalty area in the 17th minute, with the defenders seemingly scared to make a challenge and give away another penalty. Heath found Rapinoe but Spain had enough bodies back to block the shot and eventually hack the ball out of danger.
Meanwhile, at the other end, Naeher’s nervy game continued as she first clumsily tried to connect with Dunn under pressure before unconvincingly opting to come out and head away another probing long ball. Warm conditions in Reims in northeastern France gave need for a hydration break on the half-hour mark, giving Spain an opportunity to substitute playmaker Vicky Losada, who had continued to struggle following a nasty knock to the head that left her with a swollen eye in the opening 10 minutes.
With Spain forced into a tactical change of shape, Hermoso dropping deeper, the U.S. took a stronger hold of midfield but struggled to carve out the opportunity to regain them the lead. A nifty one-two between Rapinoe and Sam Mewis looked to have once again sprung Rapinoe down the left wing but Marta Corredara made the most out of some incidental contact around her face that ended with Rapinoe in the book.
Halftime saw the U.S. head in at the break without a lead for the first time at this year’s tournament, despite the Yanks’ 62% possession and out-shooting their European opponents, 6-2. Orlando Pride’s Alex Morgan had been well marshaled throughout the first 45 while both Sauerbrunn and Abby Dahlkemper were forced into last gasp blocks as Spain continued to hold its own.
The Yanks started the opening minutes of the second half strong but were nearly caught on the counter as Spain came out at the break with a lower defensive line. It gave a chance for Morgan to drop deep and collect more of the ball in space, earning more touches in the opening 10 minutes of the second half than she did the entire first, drawing Spain into some cynical fouls.
Despite dominating possession, Heath, Lavelle, and Mewis were all forced into taking aim from range as the USWNT struggled to make anything happen, creatively speaking, in front of an increasingly physical Spanish defense. Lavelle just about came closest to hitting the target.
Spain’s best chance since the goal came at the 63rd minute mark. Left fullback Leila Ouahabi switched a cross-field ball out to García before Guijarro fired a shot off, beating Naeher but failing to find the right side of the post.
Having continued to struggle to fashion an opening, the U.S. break came in the 71st minute, when the Yanks were awarded their second penalty of the game: Dunn found Morgan with her back to goal before an onrushing Lavelle was sent to the deck courtesy a loose leg from Spain’s defensive midfielder Virginia Torrecilla. As has become the norm at this tournament, there was a lengthy VAR check before the decision was confirmed and Rapinoe, who had taken the ball from Morgan during the VAR delay, buried home six minutes after the penalty was initially awarded, picking out exactly the same spot as her first. This time Paños guessed right but was beaten by the pace and placement of the strike.
With the tournament on the line, Spain made two changes, bringing on attackers Andrea Falcón and Mariona Caldentey, as La Roja pushed forward in numbers and searched for another equalizer. Ellis made her first change in the 86th minute, replacing Morgan who had been largely been shut down by Spain, with Carli Lloyd.
As Spain continued to commit forward, Heath found herself with a two-on-two alongside the fresh-legged Lloyd with a chance to put the game to bed but couldn’t find a way past Ouahabi.
Looking to see out the game, Ellis made her second substitution, turning to Horan to shore up the midfield in place of Lavelle. And that is what largely happened, as more than seven minutes of stoppage time ticked by with little in the shape of a Spain chance — the USWNT’s European counterparts left chasing shadows in the early evening sun. Rapinoe, ever-present in the U.S. attack, was the final change in the 95th minute, making way for Christen Press.
A last gasp punt forward drew half-hearted jeers and appeals from the Spanish supporting sections of the crowd when Mewis challenged for the second ball from behind — a nervy moment for those of an American disposition in the age of VAR — but the referee waved play on before shortly blowing for full time.
It’s knockout soccer and getting the win is the most important thing but Spain ran the U.S. close today. Nobody will be happy at the lack of offensive threat or creativity from the team and the game also finally saw the inevitable defensive breakdown at the other end, courtesy of some slack playing out of the back by Naeher, who put her defense in a bad position. The United States will have to be much better to reach the semifinal finals, given that the victory today has set up a true heavyweight clash in the quarterfinals against hosts France, the number three ranked team in the world, in the French capital’s Parc des Princes stadium on Friday.