The USWNT concluded a statistically perfect Group F campaign with Thursday’s steely 2-0 win over Sweden at Stade Oceane, a deep-blue pearl in northern France’s maritime hub of Le Havre where Bob Bradley once coached the local side.
One way or another, both the location and nature of that swashbuckling defeat of their Viking bogey team lent a seafaring tint to our thinking about the journey ahead for the defending champions as they begin the Women’s World Cup knockout stages with Monday’s round-of-16 match vs. Spain in Reims.
The US are heavily favored in this one (although they’ve been bet down from -310 to -270 over the past 24 hours). This a match-up for the US against a fast-rising women’s soccer protagonist that probably arrives a bit too soon for the Spanish success story.
But even if you buy into the conventional wisdom, it’s only the first of four high-stakes chapters for the Yanks if they are to keep hold of their trophy. So please, come sail away with us.
The enemy armada
Finally pushing past their nation’s outmoded notions of proper femininity, La Roja have risen in the women’s game in recent years. They’re powered by the same technical craftsmanship and loving relationship with the ball that earned their men’s national team a World Cup and two Euro titles from 2008-12.
They can pass as well as anyone. Growing up immersed in a deeply soccer-reverent culture, their tactical understanding is high. Like others at France 2019, their players carry a flinty (and inspiring) chip on their shoulders wrought by years of dealing with institutional sexism. But unfortunately for Spain, the key to their hopes of upsetting the USWNT revolve around a skill set that has proven to be their weakest link: Finishing
It’s often the centerpiece of an aspiring underdog’s game plan, not just in terms of their own ability to efficiently convert scoring chances but also the disruption of the favorites’ attack. Despite plenty of possession and interplay, Spain have scored just three goals in three games at this tournament to date, all of them in their 3-1 defeat of South Africa – and two of those from the penalty spot.
La Roja can control the tempo and create chances. They lack a clinical striker capable of converting all that into advantages on the scoreboard. Meanwhile the USWNT are blessed with a wealth of that type, from the starting trio of Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath to menacing reserve options like Carli Lloyd and Christen Press to the all-around talents of Lindsey Horan and Julie Ertz.
I am the captain of my soul
Confidently sweeping aside Sweden, even given the Norse side’s less-than-full-strength lineup, posted a potentially powerful message from the USWNT. Never mind all that talk about dodging a quarterfinal meeting with France: We’re the reigning champs, and the rest fear us, not the other way around.
“They [the USWNT] love being favorites, they love the spotlight and attention, they accept the pressure and enjoy it. They have won everything and are still hungry,” wrote Spanish playmaker Vero Boquete, a national-team icon who currently plays in the NWSL with Utah Royals FC, in a pregame column for Madrid-based publication El Pais.
“In English, the word ruthless defines them well, they do not have or feel compassion and pity for anyone.”– Vero Boquete
Boquete is pointing out a persistent advantage for the Americans, whose history of success and relentless mentality typically provides the psychological equivalent of a one-goal lead at the opening whistle.
Even against a confident rival like Sweden, the US put their foot on the throat early – via that 3rd-minute set-piece tap-in goal for Lindsey Horan – and did not relinquish their superiority. They rode that mindset in a different way when they visited Spain for a friendly back in January:
That leg up tends to dissipate against the type of elite opposition you encounter in the World Cup’s latter rounds. But landing early blows is a key ingredient for any favored side and will continue to be important as the USWNT look ahead to a rugged European slate of likely knockout opponents (Spain-France-England-Germany, anyone?).
Don’t give up the ship
The USWNT’s chief availability concerns are apparently-minor injuries to influential starters Alex Morgan and Julie Ertz. Morgan has a reasonably decent backup in the form of the iconic Lloyd, but the situation around Ertz is more complicated.
Sam Mewis has been excellent in deep-lying and box-to-box midfield roles in her two matches. Has she been good enough, perhaps, to keep her on the pitch even if Ertz is ready to return to the No. 6 role? Can those two be sandwiched into a midfield also graced by the all-rounder Horan and playmaker Rose Lavelle? Or might one of the center backs make way so that Ertz can shift back into the defensive line?
These are knotty personnel and tactical questions for coach Jill Ellis, and that’s even before we arrive at potentially the most crucial one: How will she respond to the first real signs of adversity in this tournament?
Are players and coach alike ready to weather a salvo from an upstart like Spain and delivery a flurry of fire in response? Is the USWNT mystique still all-powerful, or a leakier galleon than it appears?
Even if Spain are sent tumbling to the ocean floor, rest assured that France, Germany and others are watching closely for signs of weakness or vulnerability as the US go about that task.