Dispatch from Reims: USA through by the grazing of a boot on a thigh

Who is the favorite to win this World Cup? England, Germany, France and now the USA are through to the quarterfinals. Yet none of this quartet has been anything like convincing enough for them to stand out as the team to beat. The USA edged Spain here by two goals to one. Or, by two cogent Megan Rapinoe penalty kicks to one delectably chipped shot from Jennifer Hermoso. One of those penalty kicks needed at least a dozen viewings by referee Katalin Kulcsar before she stuck by her original decision and pointed to the spot again (see VAR Watch below). It was the narrowest of victories, by the grazing of a boot on Rose Lavelle’s thigh.

What an odd game it was. There were only three shots on target all night, and they all resulted in goals. The only U.S. shots on target were from the penalty spot (an early Rapinoe shot turned around the post was already going wide). Yet now they find themselves in the quarterfinals of the World Cup.

Despite the lack of clear-cut chances, the game was something of a classic for soccer connoisseurs. So many epic individual performances. So many duels all over the field – Alex Morgan against Irene Paredes (result: Paredes was dominant, if dirty). Crystal Dunn versus Lucia Garcia (result: a narrow Dunn victory). Rapinoe against Marta Corredera (result: a clear win for Rapinoe, with bruises to show for it, and a yellow card for inadvertently slapping Corredera in the face). Tobin Heath against Leila Ouahabi (result: massive first half victory for Heath, but Ouahabi edged the second 45). Yet at the same time, the kind of game that will be a distant memory by Friday, when the USA meets France in Paris.

What can the USA take away from this performance before we forget it ever happened?

First, that it can withstand a team that goes out to physically intimidate it. Spain committed 17 fouls to just five by the USA. That it took until the 85th minute before Spanish captain Paredes saw her team’s first yellow card was testimony yet again to the incorrigible lenience being shown by many referees during this competition. Kulcsar should have clamped down early on when Morgan was the target of overly physical play from both Paredes and her center back partner Maria Leon. She didn’t, and the pair continued to foul Morgan for the whole match.

Second, that it can recover from the setback of conceding a goal, its first at this World Cup. The ubiquitous Virginia Torrecilla had shown her ball-winning chops against Germany, but perhaps the US didn’t get those clips in its in-box. In the ninth minute, she surprised Becky Sauerbrunn in front of her own penalty area, clipped the ball to her standalone teammate Jennifer Hermoso, and the Spanish number 10 placed an exquisite shot from 20 yards into the top right corner of Alyssa Naeher’s goal. Sauerbrunn, though, immediately received encouragement from her colleagues – it’s happened, forget it and play on. And she did. Excellent team spirit again from the USA.

That equalizer had cancelled out Rapinoe’s seventh minute go-ahead goal. At this point, the game brimmed with promise, and the fluid soccer that Spain played against Germany and China was again much in evidence. The USA looked to move the ball out early to Heath and Rapinoe on their respective wings. Heath was daring and dangerous twice before she drew the early U.S. penalty, and continued to cause problems throughout the first half.

Rapinoe won MVP for converting both of her penalty kicks, but she was far from being the best U.S. player. Abby Dahlkemper was unflappable at the back, keeping things calm after Sauerbrunn’s early mistake. It was Dahlkemper’s inch-perfect pass – one of several – out to Heath on the right-wing that lead to the first penalty kick.

Samantha Mewis and Julie Ertz worked well in dominating the central midfield, winning the majority of balls, as Mewis in particular dictated much of the USA’s attacking momentum. Lavelle drifted in and out of the game, but when she was good, she was very good, such as on her elegant run before setting up Rapinoe with a defense-carving pass. But she continues to dally on the ball too long when teammates are begging for the killer pass that she’s more than capable of delivering.

Question marks remain. This US team can score goals for fun against weak opposition, but against better organized and more determined teams like Sweden and Spain, it has not looked anything like as penetrative. That was to be expected, and no one wants to see one-sided games in the knockout stages. Morgan’s relative anonymity in the past two games, however, is concerning for her coach Jill Ellis. There’s no shortage of service, from Heath especially, but Morgan is not finding the space to connect with her wingers and create chances for herself.

Still, the game’s been won, and things could be worse. The USA could be France, for example. Here’s what sports daily L’Équipe had to say this morning on the French performance against Brazil last night, and how it augurs for a quarterfinal match with the USA: “They’ll have to do a lot better on Friday evening […] at the Parc des Princes. The way they played last night, they don’t have the slightest chance, and you have to conclude this morning that they have not made a centimeter of progress since the start of the competition.”

Two favorites, the hosts and the holders, meeting in Paris on a summer’s Friday night. Regardless of the fact that neither side is yet hitting peak form, it feels like we’re getting the final nine days in advance.

VAR Watch: FIFA’s still running the pre-match video explaining VAR like one of those promotional shorts trying to persuade you to buy a time-share or launch a career with Wal-Mart starting on $2.50 an hour. It’s got modern electronic music to accompany it (using actual synthesizers!), to prove that VAR is the most up-to-date, innovative, adventurous, poppiest thing, like, ever. It’s gonna be brill! Once we’ve worked out how to use it.

Tonight’s second half lost five minutes to the second U.S. penalty decision. Referee Kulcsar was perfectly placed to call Corredera’s late foul on Lavelle. The replay showed there was contact. So why did VAR Danny Makkelie (the man who ruined Nigeria’s night against France in Rennes a week ago) see the need to question it? Why did it take him two minutes to let Kulcsar know that he thought it was worth another look? Why place doubt in Kulcsar’s mind when she was in such a good position to see it – right there on the field, in the penalty area? Credit to Kulcsar for sticking to her original call. Another bad night for the video ref. Send them all home early, please.
2 comments about "Dispatch from Reims: USA through by the grazing of a boot on a thigh".
  1. Kent James, June 25, 2019 at 1:18 a.m.

    Good analysis of the game.  The only weakness I saw in the last game was the US playing the ball out of the back, primarily Sauerbrunn (though I thought she would be making the pass to a well-defended player rather than receiving it).  Lalas had a good post-game analysis of the play; Naeher should never have played the ball to Sauerbrunn, and (knowing she was under intense pressure) Sauerbrunn should have played a one-touch pass to one of two available options.  Players should always think about risk v reward, and giving the last player on the team the ball with a defender on them carries much too great a risk (and essentialy no reward).  Hermoso finished brilliantly (more of a ball curled into the upper corner with the inside of the foot than a chip), so credit to her for that.  I hope we will learn the lesson of this costlly mistake and play a bit more conservatively when bringing the ball out of the back in the future, where gifting the other team a goal scoring opportunity will be quite costly.

    In both the Sweden game and this one, our opponenst came at us very physically, so credit to the US team for not wilting under such pressure (and the refs need to clamp down on these efforts to intimidate).  The penalty kicks were a bit soft, but they were both definitely fouls (the foul on Lavelle was unfortunate for Spain because the Spanish player did not even know Lavelle was there).  Nice finishing by Rapinoe.   I thought the score was fair (Spain didn't have much offense other than the ball we gifted them, and while the penalties were soft, we spent a lot of time in their penalty area and were rewarded for that).  The US was the better team. Now if we could only learn to put our shots on goal....

  2. Bill Riviere, June 25, 2019 at 10:38 a.m.

    Ian, Kent,  I concur a fair, but iffy result.  VAR continues to force referees to be more tentative than they otherwise would be.  Kudos to the referee for sticking with her call.  She saw it perfectly and the VAR should have left her alone to start with.

    Lack of yellow cards comes from referee supervisional direction to the centers.  This game begged for 3-4, at least, in the first half, which might have openend up the game to the better team's players who could have played without listening for footsteps.  Morgan was literally knocked down and out of the game.  Wambach would have leveled a couple of the offenders.  Morgan can't....

    More kudos to the U.S. for overcoming adversity in a knockout game.  

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