The good news for the U.S. Women’s National Team coming out of its nail-biting 2–1 win over Spain on Monday: Much of the damage done to the squad’s aura of invulnerability was self-inflicted. The bad news: Spain may have just given opponents a template for slowing down the U.S. attack.
The U.S. still hasn’t played a team that looked capable of beating it in this tournament, but for a good portion of Monday’s match, it looked like it might beat itself. Its struggles came to a head in the ninth minute, when U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher hesitated in her box before playing a hospital ball to center back Becky Sauerbrunn, who didn’t realize in time how hard Lucía García was charging toward her. Her rushed pass went straight to Spanish star Jenni Hermoso, who finished cleanly.
This would have been cause for panic had the U.S. not already made the score 1–0 on a penalty earned by Tobin Heath and finished by Megan Rapinoe. Instead, with the game tied, it became a nervy, physical contest. The U.S. never looked comfortable against a Spain side that hounded the ball through midfield, that put an elbow or a knee into Alex Morgan’s back whenever she dropped deep to try to facilitate play. The Americans appeared unbalanced by the effort they were having to put in, like they had picked up a box and it was heavier than anticipated.
But the strategy that kept Spain in the game for so long also proved its undoing. While its combativeness largely kept the U.S. out of its box, two American forays close to the goal drew penalties: the early foul on Heath and another with nearly 75 minutes gone on Rose Lavelle that left commentators divided as to whether the punishment matched the crime. Rapinoe put home that penalty as well to give the U.S. a lead, and Spain failed to muster another shot on target.
So, how worried should the U.S. be by the tight game? The sloppy play that led to Spain’s goal didn’t inspire confidence, but it also doesn’t feel like a sign of deeper trouble.
Other aspects of the game could follow the Americans throughout the tournament, though. There may now be a book on how to play the U.S., one a team better able to generate chances—France in the next round, England or Norway in a potential semifinal—can take advantage of.
Sweden, in the final group stage match, was able to slow the American attack by aggressively man-marking its two wingers, Rapinoe and Heath. Spain upped the intensity to elimination-game levels. It sent defenders early and hard after every pass up the American sideline to its more advanced midfielders, trying to get a foot on either the ball or the player as soon as possible. Heath seemed to have solved this when she drew her penalty, taking an aggressive first touch and daring the Spanish defender to keep up.
That rarely happened again. Both Rapinoe and Heath prefer to have a moment to survey their options, and the American midfield wasn’t able to get them the ball early enough to have that opportunity. Reinserting Lindsey Horan into the starting lineup will help; Horan likely started on the bench on Monday because another yellow card would have meant she was suspended from Friday’s quarterfinal against France (though the unwritten rules of the sport mean U.S. coach Jill Ellis won’t admit it because it means she was looking past the game at hand.)
Perhaps it was a reluctance to expose an in-jeopardy Horan to more of a testy, physical game that kept Ellis from using her subs earlier in this one, even when members of the squad looked like they needed one. Morgan has played poorly in two straight matches and doesn’t appear to be completely healthy yet. Rapinoe looked tired until the challenge of drawing fouls and wasting time in the last 10 minutes perked her up. She and Heath have both played nearly all of the Americans’ past two games. Attacking depth was supposed to be one of this U.S. team’s great strengths, but the U.S. could be dragging some tired legs into its quarterfinal.
France didn’t exactly show out in its narrow extra-time win over Brazil on Sunday. The most anticipated match of the tournament is still coming Friday, but instead of finding its participants flying high, it’s looking more likely to be a cagey affair, two teams coming off hard-fought wins looking to punish each other’s mistakes. The U.S. better hope it got out all its screw-ups on Monday. It can’t afford to nearly beat itself again.