Before Monday night’s last-16 game against Spain, the U.S. women’s national team had looked nearly invincible in this World Cup.
The U.S. had been dominant in its three group stage matches, defeating Thailand, Chile and Sweden by a combined score of 18-0.
But, with quarterfinal opposition France keenly observing, Spain showed that the U.S. can be beaten and, more importantly, it showed how that can be done.
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The U.S. did sneak past Spain with a 2-1 win in Reims and, in many ways, the result was all that mattered. It’s all about surviving and advancing in the World Cup knockout phase, and the USWNT lived to fight another day.
But the manner in which they advanced won’t inspire much confidence and will boost a France side that itself has failed to impress in three games since a 4-0 win over South Korea in the tournament’s opening match.
How did Spain do it? Start with the U.S. back line and, in particular, goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and center back Becky Sauerbrunn.
Spain used selective pressing to harass the American goalkeeper and her back line, picking and choosing when to sit back and when to pounce.
That strategy paid off to perfection in the ninth minute, as Lucia Garcia took the ball off Sauerbrunn after Naeher played her an unwise pass into a tight spot.
"I just need to make a smarter decision and not play it into a pressure pocket," Naeher said after the game.
Still, Sauerbrunn could have dealt with the danger better. Garcia poked the ball to Jenni Hermoso, who finished to make it 1-1.
Naeher and Sauerbrunn have both displayed moments of shakiness during this World Cup, and France would be wise to crank up the pressure when either of them have the ball in a confined space.
Further up the field, Spain’s outside backs did a tremendous job of pressuring the USWNT’s dangerous wide players, Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath, getting tight to the pair and not giving them as much room to maneuver as they normally enjoy.
"Not a great game for me personally," Rapinoe admitted. "I think the right back (Marta Corredera) did a great job, I don’t think I beat her one time one-v-one."
While the U.S. wide players were stifled, Spain’s attackers on the flank did an excellent job of exploiting the U.S. outside backs, particularly left back Crystal Dunn.
Time and time again Spain went after Dunn, a converted attacking player who has a tendency to drift out of position. On the right flank, Garcia managed to create several chances and, of course, she set up her team’s only goal.
“They look to get it wide in order to spread out the defense to penetrate centrally,” Alex Morgan said of Spain. France, with players like Delphine Cascarino and Kadidiatou Diani, should be able to exploit the USWNT’s outside backs even better than Spain did.
In all parts of the field, the U.S. seemed surprised by Spain’s physicality, which oftentimes bordered on being unsporting.
"I don't remember them being this physical, this aggressive, this reckless in challenges,” Morgan said. "For me that was a little different, I wasn't expecting that.”
Call it what you will, but Spain’s aggressive play clearly unsettled the USWNT. Morgan, in particular, was a target and Spain’s physicality combined with a possible lingering injury badly hampered her effectiveness.
But, as Morgan pointed out, Spain’s physicality did eventually get the better of them.
“We were able to capitalize on [Spain’s aggressiveness] with penalties,” Morgan said.
Those penalties lifted the U.S. into a dream showdown with France in Paris on Friday. Despite the USWNT’s struggles against Spain, Morgan knows that France is far from flawless as well.
“They’ve struggled at times and so we’re going to have to look at that and pick apart the weaknesses that they’ve shown,” Morgan said.
No doubt France will do the same.