The USA women’s national team defeated Spain 2-1 in the FIFA Women’s World Cup Group of 16 match Monday afternoon on two penalty kick goals from captain Megan Rapinoe.
A win is a win, and in this stage of the tournament that’s all that matters. Except when you look up and realize that the Americans now must face France, the host country of this year’s World Cup, in the next round.
USA was awarded their first penalty kick in the seventh minute. Two minutes later, the Americans gave that goal right back on careless play in the back. Goakleeper Alyssa Naeher softly passed to Becky Sauerbrunn, who then turned it over right outside the box and set up Spain’s lone goal. It was Spain’s only shot on goal in the 90-plus minute game.
The heavily-favored Americans were pushed to a place they haven’t been much of 2019, and really since the upsetting finish in the 2016 Olympic Games where USA lost to Sweden in the quarterfinals. Spain executed a game plan to pressure the Americans anytime their backs were turned towards them, and they did it physically. Not even five minutes into the game, the Spaniards had USA star striker Alex Morgan on the ground, and she was sent there a number of times more throughout the match.
It’s no coincidence that Morgan was mostly a non-factor on the pitch for much of the time she was out there before she was substituted for with Carli Lloyd in the 85th minute. The French, clearly the best team the Americans will have seen in this tournament, had to have watched that and made a giant bullet point of it in their game plan for Friday. Morgan needs to be able to handle opposing teams targeting her and trying to get her out of her game. Spain did that, and it worked. Morgan just wasn’t good enough.
It wasn’t just Morgan who struggled in the offensive third. Rapinoe didn’t have her best game, and I thought Julie Ertz and Samantha Mewis struggled in the final third. Rose Lavelle I thought played a great game, but the American midfield has to be better at finishing possessions off.
Early on in Monday’s match, it was clear that Team USA had an advantage on the outside with Rapinoe and Tobin Heath. When Spain reacted to the outside, it opened up the middle for attack, but the Americans simply didn’t take advantage of the openings. The French may not give that many opportunities, so it will be essential for the Americans to be better in the final third.
There weren’t many question marks about the USA roster when it was announced. And nobody really questioned Naeher getting the nod as the starter in net, but there were questions. Hope Solo was arguably the best goalkeeper in team history, so whoever it was to replace her had big shoes to fill. With the Americans being so much better than nearly every team in the region, Naeher very rarely got tested ahead of the World Cup.
She wasn’t tested much on Monday, but it was her mistake with Sauerbrunn that allowed Spain to score the tying goal. There were other times in the match she looked unsure of herself. She did make a big play on a Spain free kick after Rapinoe scored her second penalty kick, putting her body on the line coming far off her line to clear the ball away from danger.
France is bound to test the Americans in the final third, so Naeher will have to play with far more confidence, because she nearly cost them Monday.
The Americans don’t have to be perfect to hoist a second consecutive World Cup trophy, they just have to be the USA team they’ve proven to be. Monday was good enough to win, but USA simply must be better going forward.
Chris Doherty is a Sports Reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. Contact him 276-638-8801 ext. 215. Follow on Twitter @BulletinSport