It was widely believed that the Americans would not be sternly tested until the quarterfinals, at an anticipated clash in Paris on Friday, but Spain was far from the obliging opponent many had expected.
The US’ defense wobbled, an attack regarded as the most potent in the competition was stifled, and for much of the match Spain was the US’ equal. So successful was Spain in frustrating the Americans that Jill Ellis’ side had to rely on a late, and much questioned, penalty to see off a team competing in the knockout stages of the World Cup for the first time.
“You can have all the tactics in the world but that essence of self belief, that’s critical and these players have that,” she told reporters after the match.
“Spain came out and wanted to physically mix it up. At times our movement could’ve been a little better to deal with that, but you want to make sure that you have a person in the middle who can take care of the game and control those situations as well.
“It’s part of this level, in terms of the intensity and the physicality of the matches, and I think it will actually get us ready for the next match.”
But before this tournament questions were raised about the US’ defense and, for the first time, it was put through its paces and breached. France, a team with forwards who could cause the Americans a number of problems, will undoubtedly already have taken note.
In trying to play out from defense, Becky Sauerbrunn lost possession on the edge of her box and Spain pounced with a delightful finish from Jennifer Hermoso.
The defending champion created more chances — Rapinoe twice missed opportunities to regain the lead — but so too did Spain, catching out the Americans’ high defensive line on a couple of occasions.
Spain’s ploy of slowing the pace of the game by keeping possession worked until Virginia Torrecilla challenged Rose Lavelle inside the box and the referee, without hesitation, pointed at the spot.
Though it appeared to be the slightest of contacts, a VAR check rubber stamped the decision and Rapinoe coolly slotted home for her third goal of the competition.
Following the 2015 Women’s World Cup, the national team players called for the sacking of then manager Ignacio Quereda and, after 27 years at the helm, Quereda stepped down from his post that summer.
Under his successor Jorge Vilda — at 37 the youngest coach at the tournament — much has changed and the tenacity and talent of the players in only the country’s second Women’s World Cup was testimony to the improvements made in recent years.
After defeat by two-time champion Germany in the group stages, Spain goalkeeper Sandra Panos said her team “can play with any team in the world” and so it proved on a balmy evening in Reims.
“I really feel that we all should be proud of what we did,” Vilda told reporters after the match. “I am very proud indeed. In terms of competitiveness, we gave the best team in the world a run for their money.
“It was a great effort on part of all the players. We’re going to grow from this defeat, and I’m really sure all the players on the team have ensured their future.”
“This is the game that everyone had circled,” Rapinoe said of the tie. “It’s going to be a great match. I hope it’s wild and crazy, I hope the fans are crazy and there’s tons of media around it and it’s just a big spectacle.
“It’s incredible for the women’s game. You have two heavy hitters meeting in the knockout round. This is everything you want from these two sides.”