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
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
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 –
against Irene Paredes
(result: Paredes was dominant, if dirty). Crystal Dunn
versus Lucia Garcia
(result: a narrow Dunn victory). Rapinoe against Marta
(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
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
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
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