REIMS, France — Jill Ellis sat on the sideline and nibbled on her finger.
It was a sweltering Monday night, and her players on the United States women’s soccer team were deadlocked with Spain, one goal apiece, in their round-of-16 showdown at the Women’s World Cup. The clock had ticked into the 75th minute, and now Ellis’s captain, Megan Rapinoe, was preparing to take a penalty kick.
A lot hinged on the moment.
Spain is seen as the most rapidly ascendant national team in women’s soccer, embodying in many ways the global flow of power and, potentially, the future of the sport, as more of Europe’s traditional men’s soccer powers turn their attention to the women’s side of the game.
The United States is the traditional power of women’s soccer, a three-time winner of the World Cup, now watching the rest of the world rapidly narrow what once had been a sizable talent gap.
On the field Monday at the Stade Auguste-Delaune, Rapinoe took five short steps to the ball and drilled it into the lower left corner, scoring her second goal of the night from the penalty spot. Ellis leapt off the bench and embraced her assistant coaches as the crowd roared.
For 90 minutes on Monday, the Americans got a glimpse of the future, and, for another night, they succeeded in keeping it at bay.
“Spain is a very good team,” Ellis said after the United States closed out its 2-1 victory and advanced to a quarterfinal against France. “If you guys look back in all the games they played this year, like I have, they’ve dominated most of their opponents — in fact, all their opponents. This was a tricky game, probably the hardest game in the round of 16.”
It was a tricky match indeed — and coarser, scrappier and testier than perhaps all three of the Americans’ group-stage games combined. Players from both sides tangled themselves into tackles, limbs flailing, shoving and groping for space.
The Spaniards elected to neutralize the threat of American striker Alex Morgan by slamming into her back whenever she received the ball. Morgan called their play at times “reckless.”
The Americans went ahead in just the seventh minute, when Tobin Heath was tripped in the box and Rapinoe converted the penalty kick, slotting it in the left corner, the spot she would pick again in the second half.
Spain tied the match two minutes later when the American goalkeeper, Alyssa Naeher, made an ill-advised to pass to defender Becky Sauerbrunn that left her no time to cleanly distribute the ball. Spain’s Lucía García swooped in to dispossess Sauerbrunn, and Jennifer Hermoso gathered the loose ball and curled it into the top right corner of the goal.
“I should have probably just put my foot through it anywhere and tried to clear it,” said Sauerbrunn, who called the play a “debacle.”
But all those things — the moments of enmity, the aggression, the gamesmanship and the histrionics, even the mistakes — made this the United States’ most conventionally entertaining match of the tournament. The action pinballed from one end of the field to the other, and tension, for once, was palpable on the American bench.
With the win, the Americans progressed to a blockbuster quarterfinal matchup with host France on Friday in Paris — though the manner in which they did it was not entirely convincing. Jorge Vilda, the coach of Spain, sounded almost triumphant in defeat.
“If they’ve had to win from penalties, it’s because we’ve really shown our worth, and we’ve given them a run for the money,” he said, “and we have to be really positive about our overall performance and what happened in the match.”
Vilda said his players should be proud. “We’re going to keep growing and progressing,” he said, “and I think they should walk away with their heads held really high.”
Their future is undoubtedly bright. Spain won the under-17 World Cup last year, finished as runner-up at the under-20 World Cup and captured the last two European under-19 titles.
Spain, along with nations like the Netherlands and Italy, has begun to build a women’s program to eventually match the longtime quality of its men’s team. All of these countries have the infrastructure, the culture and, now, the will to create a pipeline of talent that could change the face of the Women’s World Cup in tournaments to come — a fact that the United States knows it will soon have to confront.
For now, there is mutual respect. Spain’s Marta Torrejón said before the game that the United States was still, obviously, the standard-bearer in the game.
“Football in America is an example for all of us in every sense of the word, in the sense of the media coverage they get, in terms of the financial support they have,” Torrejón said, pointing out that the American players are stars at home. “To get to that stage, we know we have a long journey ahead of us. But we’re happy to take on that challenge and try to emulate it.”
And one day they might.
But on Monday, the Americans kept control of this moment in time. The summer remained theirs.
90’ + 7
Rapinoe off at last.
Press sprints on. That’s more of a time-wasting move at this point, but they will kill the clock any way they can right now.
Seven minutes of added time.
That appears to be the customary amount under our new V.A.R. overlords.
Spain is pushing. U.S. is hanging on.
Ertz is now slotted in as a fifth defender, a third center back. Lindsey Horan is on for Lavelle.
Spain uses its third sub. Ellis prepares her first.
Carli Lloyd is at the touchline, waiting for a whistle so she can replace Morgan.
It’s really kind of stunning that, in this heat, Ellis has waited until there are about five minutes left to take off anyone. That it’s Morgan isn’t a surprise; she’s been battered all day.
Huuuuuuge cheers as Lloyd sprints on.
Ouch. Naeher down after a brave challenge.
Naeher, who it should be noted has been much sharper since her early shakiness, charges out to punch away a ball headed for Torrecilla. They collide, and Naeher takes the worst of it.
Same spot. Same result. U.S. leads, 2-1.
Rapinoe goes low and hard to the left again, and scores again. Huge sighs of relief on the U.S. bench, and in the huddle around Rapinoe.
Spain may come to rue those three or four wasted minutes as they chase the game now.
Penalty confirmed! Rapinoe takes the ball from Morgan, who wanted it.
As we said, it would have been very hard for the referee to take that back, since she saw it cleanly.
PENALTY!! Lavelle is brought down, and the U.S. can take the lead.
Well here we go: that looked innocuous in real time, but replays show Lavelle — converging on a loose ball near the penalty spot — got kicked in the leg by Torrecilla and went down.
Spain’s players are stalling, hoping for a V.A.R. review. Leon just rolled the ball off the spot after Morgan placed it there.
And the waiting works: Kulcsar makes the square and runs over to the sideline monitor. The referee was standing 10 yards away with an unobstructed view, so it’s would be a shock to see if she overturns herself.
It’s time for Ellis to think about some subs. Right?
Morgan is getting mauled and Rapinoe has vanished from the game on the left. Christen Press would solve the second problem nicely, and Carli Lloyd might be the answer to the first.
Only Lindsey Horan and Emily Sonnett are warming up at the moment, but Mallory Pugh did earlier. Coach Ellis is currently seated on the bench, hands crossed.
Spain is really up for the fight today.
Spain has been more physical with the U.S. than any team it has faced since, maybe, Canada last year. Morgan. Heath. Ertz. Morgan. Morgan. Morgan. O’Hara. The Americans keep getting knocked to the ground, and they’re really getting annoyed.
Even Ellis got up after the last one — Leon sweeping the legs of O’Hara (cleanly but roughly). The Americans need to keep their cool here, and the Spanish need to make sure they don’t cross the line. A couple of yellows, or a red, could change everything.
Whoooosh! Heath rifles a shot over the bar.
Like so many Heath chances, she was just looking for an opening on the right with a couple of short dribbles, but then she pulled a quick trigger and rifled a shot about a foot over Paños’s crossbar.
Heath down, and now Morgan is, too
Play is stopped briefly to attend to Heath, who was injured reaching in for a 50/50 ball.
She gets up, but now Morgan is down. She has been taking a beating today and she’s not happy about it. This time, it was a tangle of legs.
Minutes later, Maria Léon drops her flat again. Morgan appeals for a yellow, or at least a cop, but gets neither.
No changes at halftime.
No changes, that is, except the sun has broken through the clouds, which will only make it hotter down there.
Morgan almost sprung Heath with a lead ball down the right, but Leon got there first and whacked it out of bounds.
The U.S. leads, 1-1. (That’s a joke.)
The score is tied but the United States was in control. In recent games — against Chile and Sweden — the U.S. dominance did not always translate to the scoreboard, and this feels like a similar deal. But the early goal was a sign of intent, and the Spanish response will surely be a motivator.
We mentioned the weather earlier and it’s not any cooler, so keep an eye on that. Spain had to use a sub early, and Torrecilla needed treatment after landing awkwardly just before halftime. The U.S. looks fresher, and has a LOT more lurking on the bench if Spain tires.
The thing is, they still have to score. And strange things can happen in the knockout round. As the United States learned early, a single mistake can give away a goal at any moment.
And no one wants to go out like that.
45’ + 1
Spain content to run out the half here.
The problem for them is that the U.S. is not. Rapinoe drives in a free kick toward a team of galloping attackers, but it’s about a foot too far for Lavelle at the far post.
Sorry, not sorry.
YELLOW card for Rapinoe: she raked Corredera across the face.
That seemed accidental, but she basically slapped the Spain right back as she tried to change direction and cut inside. Oops. But still a yellow. Rapinoe fumes at the ref, rolling her eyes, but slaps hands with Corredera as if to say, “My bad.”
Spain substitution: Losada off with an eye injury
That’ll hurt, because Losada is one of Spain’s more important midfield players, but her right eye is closing rapidly after some sort of contact. (Sorry, I missed it, but seeing it now it’s hard to see how she could have continued.) The teams take advantage of the lull for a much-needed hydration break.
More nervy moments for Naeher, who looks shaky so far.
Naeher, taking a back pass from Dunn, nearly creates even MORE trouble. She hits Hermoso with her clearance and needs to scramble to get the loose ball to Dunn.
A minute later she charges out to head a clearance just before Hermoso arrives yet again, but the first half hour here is a good reminder that Naeher has had almost nothing to do in this tournament. Today, she’s been put under pressure a couple of times, and — to be frank — she hasn’t looked great.
Spain would very much like to slow this down.
The problem is that the United States isn’t letting them. Every time they win the ball it’s like a car peeling out of a high school parking lot. Lavelle just took a giveaway on a throw-in and raced up the middle. But with Heath on her right and Morgan chasing to catch up on the left, Lavelle goes left, too heavy, and the chance rolls harmlessly out of bounds.
Heath, ignored, put both hands to her forehead. “I’m running over here Rose …”
It’s end to end now.
Lavelle with a gorgeous pass that splits open the Spain defense and leads Rapinoe perfectly on the left wing. Rapinoe one-times it to Paños near post, but she gets down in time to parry it away. GREAT chance, but the teams are really flying now. The U.S. game is to stretch opponents and then carve them up, and it nearly worked to perfection there.
The Americans will need to move quickly, because whenever they slow up, Spain drops all 10 players behind the ball, clogging any gaps.
SPAIN TIES IT!!! A mistake by Naeher!
Well that was fast. Naeher with a lazy clearance that catches Sauerbrunn short with Lucia Garcia closing her down. Garcia flicks it over to an open Jenni Hermoso, and she punishes Naeher from the top of the area. Wow, what a mistake.
That’s the first goal the United States has allowed at the World Cup after scoring 19, and Naeher will be kicking herself. She only has herself to blame there.
GOAL! Rapinoe buries the penalty lower left.
That was a no-doubt: hard and low to the left-side netting. No chance for Paños.
It’s also the fourth game in a row the Americans have grabbed an early lead: 12th minute against Thailand, 11th against Chile, 3rd against Sweden.
PENALTY to the U.S.! Heath goes down in the area!
Heath cuts in from the right and Maria Léon just swipes her ankles. Clear penalty. Rapinoe wants it.
Alex Morgan has been run down twice already.
Spain has clubbed her twice from behind already. But anything is better than letting her turn and start a counterattack, I guess. Morgan points this out to Kulcsar, who is probably it wasn’t her that knocked her down to be honest.
That’s an odd start: the referee breaks up the first attack.
The referee, Katalin Kulcsar of Hungary, breaks up Spain’s first attack by getting in the way. She calls back play and does a drop ball.
Spain immediately takes the ball down the left side off the restart and sends in a cross. Becky Sauerbrunn clearly it weakly to the top of the area, and her reward is a hard Spain shot back in that hits her directly in the face. Ouch.
Today’s lineups: One big change for the United States
One big surprise in the United States lineup today: Lindsey Horan sits, replaced in midfield by the returning Julie Ertz (and also by Sam Mewis in a sense, since she stays). Horan has been excellent in France, scoring goals in each of her two starts and providing some two-way grit. But Sam Mewis has been as good, or better, and Ertz only missed the Sweden game because of a minor injury. Since Ellis wants Rose Lavelle’s speed and creativity going forward in attack, that has always meant a three-player puzzle for the two midfield spots alongside her between Ertz, Horan and Mewis. Today, Horan loses out. It would not be a surprise to see her later, hungry and eager to have a go at a tiring Spain defense.
United States lineup: Alyssa Naeher, Crystal Dunn, Becky Sauerbrunn, Abby Dahlkemper, Kelley O’Hara; Julie Ertz, Sam Mewis, Rose Lavelle; Megan Rapinoe (c), Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath
Spain lineup: Sandra Paños; Marta Corredera, Irene Paredes (c), Maria León, Leila Ouahabi; Vicky Losada, Aleixa Putellas, Patri Guijarro, Virginia Torrecilla; Jenni Hermoso, Lucia García
A word about the weather.
It’s scorching in Reims today, where the sun is high, the breeze is absent and the temperature is expected to be about 90 degrees Fahrenheit for kickoff, which is 6 p.m. local time. My colleagues Andrew Keh and Jeré Longman confirm my expert analysis that it is capital H hot.
That could be a factor. The United States is the oldest team in the tournament, but it also is one of the fittest. The Americans also are among the deepest squads in the field, so Jill Ellis will have plenty of talent to call upon if she needs it. Christen Press and Mallory Pugh against a tiring defense is a matchup she surely likes. As midfielder Rose Lavelle said Sunday, “The strength of this team is we have a lot of strengths.”
Still, Spain has had three extra days of rest since its previous game, and its players are no strangers to playing in the heat.
“We can’t control what our opponent has” for rest, Ellis said. “Everything is about us.”
A bit of history on the U.S.-Spain rivalry.
To be frank, there really isn’t one. The teams have played only once, in January in Alicante a few days after the Americans lost a friendly against France. The United States won that day, on a goal by Christen Press. Here are the highlights:
While the United States has made at least the semifinals in every World Cup, Spain, which made its World Cup debut four years ago, is in the knockout rounds for the first time. That made its pretournament friendlies — wins over the Netherlands and Brazil, defeats to England and the United States — critically important.
“Playing against the best team in the world for the first time made us understand what playing against such fast players, with great technique in a well-learned system would mean,” Spain Coach Jorge Vilda said after Spain’s final game of the group stage. “This is something we studied. This is a game where any single detail can change things so we’re going to look at what we’ve done and try and correct our mistakes.”
On Sunday, he welcomed the challenge.
“When the girls will look at the players in front of them, they’re not going to see stars, they’re going to see a team like any other,” Vilda said. “They are a good team. But we also are a team that has been known to be up to the challenge.”
What’s next for the winner today?
The winner of today’s U.S.-Spain match in Reims advances to a quarterfinal against France on Friday at Parc des Princes in Paris. But France looked shaky in beating Brazil in extra time on Sunday to reach the game, and beating them is increasingly looking like an achievable goal.
When France won in Paris on opening night, raining goals on South Korea and bathing in the cheers of a full house, it looked to be the odds-on favorite to win the World Cup. But that match now feels like the high point of Les Bleues’ journey, which since has seen a tight V.A.R.-aided win against Norway, a narrow V.A.R.-aided win over Nigeria, and an uncomfortably close extra-time victory against Brazil.
Yes, France has won every match. But something seems off.
“In the first half especially, our group was very nervous,” Corinne Diacre, France’s coach, said after beating Brazil. “I asked them at halftime to play more freely and enjoy themselves. They were putting so much pressure on themselves that they forgot the fundamentals, and we were facing a very good team.”
The opponents will only get better from here, but Diacre, who is under immense pressure to deliver France’s first major trophy, still thinks her players are up to the task.
“I cannot say that I totally recognized my team tonight individually, but we did what we had to do defensively and collectively,” she said. “It was not exceptional but, despite all that, we went out and found what we needed to get the victory.”