– by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
More than three-quarters of the United States’ round of 16 match-up against Spain elapsed before the biggest kick of the game was slated to be taken — one that almost everyone involved with the U.S. team knew had Alex Morgan’s name written all over it. Fitting with a game where the unexpected became reality, however, a last-minute switcheroo to that original plan became the moment when the United States earned its widely-expected date with the host nation in the quarterfinals.
Megan Rapinoe converted on two penalty kicks, including the game-winner in the 75th minute, as the States withstood a stern challenge from the Spanish before winning 2-1 on Monday evening in Reims. The win allowed the women’s national team to keep its impressive streak of making it to the quarters of every FIFA Women’s World Cup since its inception in 1991.
After midfielder Rose LaVelle was ruled to have been fouled in the box on a challenge by Virginia Torrecilla in the 71th minute, Alex Morgan walked to the spot with ball in hand despite Rapinoe having already scored in the first half via a penalty kick. Originally sticking with the team’s established protocol, Rapinoe takes the first penalty kick awarded in a game and Morgan would take the second, if a second penalty kick opportunity occurs.
It did occur today, but during the stoppage to allow a VAR review of the penalty (which was upheld), U.S. head coach Jill Ellis threw those penalty plans out the window.
“‘Pinoe is our [number] one on PKs and I said to her, ‘Did you give to Alex?,'” said Ellis to FOX Sports’ Alex Curry after the game. “[Rapinoe] said yeah, but I said I want you to take it. No problem, no issue there and obviously she tucked them both away. It was great.”
As expected, the U.S. and France will clash in a monumental quarterfinal matchup on Friday in Paris. Almost everything else about today’s game defied expectations.
La Roja, an up-and-coming women’s soccer nation known for its exquisite passing, changed from its usual 4-5-1 formation and played more long balls to challenge the middle of the U.S. defense. It created an immediate issue for Jill Ellis’ side to deal with, and a left-footed shot from inside the box from Patricia Guijarro that looked goal-bound was headed away by Becky Sauerbrunn in the game’s opening minute.
The U.S. settled down quickly and soon were awarded a penalty after Tobin Heath was brought down in the box by fullback Maria Pillar León after getting the ball out wide in space. Rapinoe dispatched the penalty to the lower left corner, marking the fourth time out of four games the U.S. scored its opening goal inside of the game’s first 12 minutes.
Shockingly, the game was tied just 168 seconds later.
Trying to play out from the back on a restart, goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher played a short pass down the middle to Sauerbrunn, who was dispossessed immediately under the high press of Spain attacker Lucía García. Fellow striker Jennifer Hermoso latched onto the ball quickly after the turnover before lofting a shot past a stranded Naeher and into the top right corner for the first goal that the Americans conceded in the tournament.
As the pressure mounted on the heavily-favored U.S., Spain ended up turning up the pressure physically on the Americans’ front line, particularly with persistent fouls on Alex Morgan, who barely had an impact on the contest as she appeared banged up almost all throughout the game. Conversely, Spain was able to create promising scoring chances down the U.S.’s left flank, catching left fullback Crystal Dunn, a forward by trade, out of position a number of times and forcing midfielder Julie Ertz and even Morgan to backtrack into theat vacated area.
By far the best unit for the U.S. was its midfield, featuring Ertz’s defensive work and the creativity of LaVelle and Samantha Mewis, who started ahead of Lindsey Horan and excelled in being a box-to-box player. It was LaVelle who was first to a loose ball at the top of the box before being grazed by the right foot of Torrecilla in the 71st minute and being awarded the penalty.
Any worries about the same player taking a second penalty and giving a better opportunity for the goalkeeper to make a save were allayed when Rapinoe once again beat Sandra Paños for pace to the lower left corner.
“You can talk tactics and you can talk everything, but just the heart and the grit and the resolve, that’s a big part of World Cup soccer,” Ellis said. “No game is ever easy in this tournament. We know that, we learned that, so part of it is the mental piece and I thought we were great tonight.”