By Arnie Leshin
Until Monday, the United States national soccer team’s trek through the Women’s World Cup was a demonstration in style and grace, in ruthlessness and scoring surges.
But after 90 minutes at sticky Stade Auguste-Delaune, then another seven minutes of stoppage time caused largely by the referees’ indecision, confusion on a penalty called outside the Spain goal, the match took a turn in the USA’s direction and, thus, steered it past upset-minded Spain, 2-1, to gain Friday’s quarterfinals against host France.
This didn’t figure, wasn’t expected, but the USA was many times stopped in its tracks, coming up short on its usual attacking offense that had gotten here by stomping over Trinidad, 13-0, Chili, 3-0, and Sweden, 2-0.
The three Group F first round matches all got closer, but never a threat to the experienced Americans and their experience and quality mixture of offense and defense.
But Spain might have been outplayed. It was outshot 17-5, with only four shots on goal to the USA’s 13, but kept hanging around after tying the score at 1-1 early in the first half.
Megan Rapione, the starting left wing for the Red, White and Blue, did not have one of her better games, but score the first and last goals, the second leaving the United States fans, players and coaches with a collective deep breath. Before that, and even to the final whistle, there were concerns.
“The ref made the call as Mallory (Pugh) came across with the ball and was hooked and knocked down by the Spain player. The call was made, but there were some protests by that player and coaches, and soon the ref was charging to the sidelines and meeting with the other officials.
“When she returned to the field, she signaled that it was a foul and would result in a penalty kick because the player (Mallory) was inside the penalty box and was making a play when it occurred.”
After the USA first designated leading scoring and starting forward Alex Morgan, it switched to Rapione, and to the USA, it was worth waiting for.
Said Morgan, who scored a record-tying five goals against Trinidad: “We hadn’t been in this position in a long time, but we did enough to win, we pulled through by keeping our composure and around the time of the penalty, we were applying the offense, looking for the big plays.”
And then came the big play at the 76th minute. In the third minute of the first half, Rapione picked up a pass from Morgan and sent it into the net from 7-feet out left of the goal. Five minutes later, Spain scored the first goal here against the United States on a 9-foot kick that got past two USA defenders.
And that’s the way it stayed. At halftime, 8thranked Spain had the look of a winner, a team that was mixing it up with the defending champions, the No. 1 team in the world. The American team still appeared confident, smiling and making its way to its locker room.
But a W is still a W and the USA became the sixth team to gain the quarter. Others who make up the field are Germany, Sweden, England, Norway, and the last two will come from Tuesday’s matches between Italy and China and Netherlands and Japan.
Sweden surprised by eliminating Canada, 1-0, Norway and Australia played to a 1-1 standoff, but the Norwegians were awarded the tiebreaker. Then there was France getting a tough test from Brazil before prevailing 2-1. Germany moved on by blanking the Netherlands, 3-0, and Great Britain shut down Camerron, 3-0.
And most important for the Red, White and Blue, it managed to slip though.