REIMS, FRANCE — The U.S. women’s national team stepped back into Stade Auguste-Delaune in Reims Monday, just one week after it took down Thailand 13-0 on the same pitch.
This time, a 2-1 World Cup quarterfinal win over Spain, was a little different.
Discourse Monday instead revolved around Spain, and how much it was able to fluster the team many consider tournament favorites. It took two penalty kicks for the U.S. to squeak by a scrappy Spanish team that put the pressure on early.
“It’s a match against the U.S. and if you lose it because of two penalties, well then it’s because Spain has been really up to scratch,” Spain head coach Jorge Vilda said through a translator at the post-match press conference. “If they’ve had to win through penalties it’s because we’ve really shown our worth and we’ve given them a run for their money.”
Spain’s resolve to make this match closer than much of the world anticipated was clear early. After a U.S. penalty kick, Spain equalized by harassing the American back line and taking advantage of lazy ball movement between Becky Sauerbrunn and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher. Spain pounced – and Jennifer Hermoso’s advantageous goal in that moment was a sign of what was to come.
Spain swarmed throughout the first half, and pressured the U.S. into multiple mistakes, especially on the back line. The U.S. never quite looked comfortable in a frenetic first half. It also struggled to find rhythm, with Spain going toe-to-toe in one aspect the U.S. itself is typically known for: physicality.
Spain came into Monday’s match knowing to expect a rougher game. And despite holding firm early on, that physicality was what forced Spain to change up its game plan in the first half. They lost a midfielder midway through the first half, and responded by going even more on the offensive.
Midfielder Vicky Losada took a ball to the eye in the 32nd minute, bringing on visible swelling to her face. Nahikari Garcia subbed on – which Vilda said was the impetus to buckle down and go even more full-speed-ahead.
“Obviously we had to react in the first half with the ball that Vicky had to her eye,” Vilda said. “We had to try and strengthen the midfield and obviously we had to change the structure of it. We had to be a bit more offensive and a bit farther up, so that we could try to not let the U.S. be as comfortable and as able to get to their central players as easily.”
And that’s exactly what happened. During the second half, the U.S. still struggled to get into any kind of rhythm. Spain cut into passing lanes and continued to press high, keeping attackers Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan from getting many quality chances. Morgan in particular felt the brunt of Spain’s physicality, going down in a heap several times.
Until the U.S. converted its second penalty kick in the 75th minute, it was a wide open match. And even after that, the hordes of U.S. fans at Stade Auguste-Delaune were tense, knowing that Spain had already equalized once before.
Despite the Spanish hopes ending with the second U.S. PK, their performance had U.S. fans stressed and the rest of the soccer world talking.
“I for one am very proud indeed because in terms of competitiveness, we’ve been able to be the equals with the best team in the world,” Vilda said after the game. “We’ve actually been able to give them a run for their money and be able to match their skills with speed and technique, etc, and I think it’s been a really great effort on the part of all the players.”
Spain is on a list of countries benefiting from increased investment in the country’s women’s soccer infrastructure (FC Barcelona, one of the richest clubs in the world, invested significantly in the women’s game in the past World Cup cycle). Combine that with Spain’s attacking game plan against the U.S., and those involved with the Spanish national team believe the future is bright.
“I think the future is going to be so good,” Losada said “We have really young players who are so talented, and it’s about time to show the world that Spain is going to be on top in a few years.”
Vilda was of the same mindset: Despite disappointment in the result, he emphasized how strong of a performance the Spaniards had and how much it showed they were capable of going toe-to-toe with the No. 1-ranked team in the world.
“I think that people have really seen the potential that Spain has,” Vilda said. “They know it’s going to be a national team and a league in the future that’s going to be amongst the strongest in the world.”