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Team USA may face the toughest match of the Women's World Cup on Friday. Or it may have already played it on Monday.
Against a Spanish team that played physical and skilled soccer all game long, the US team was fortunate to pull out a 2-1 regulation victory. A questionable penalty call in the 71st minute during a play in which the Americans had lost control of the ball up high in the box a moment earlier gave the US team a second penalty kick.
While the call was reviewed, striker Alex Morgan, who has been a disappointment in this tournament ever since piling up easy goals in the opener against Thailand, moved forward to seemingly take the kick. This caused no small measure of consternation because Megan Rapinoe, who had decisively converted the first PK in the seventh minute, was still on the field and ready to go.
It appeared as though Morgan was exercising a sort of "It's my turn" prerogative. Fortunately that sort of foolish thinking did not stand. After the review, Rapinoe stepped forward to take the kick and blasted it into the goal again.
Some world-class forwards look up as they approach penalty kicks to see if the goalie makes a move one way or the other and then attempt to use that info to their advantage. That may work for them but it seems clear that the best way to do it for most players is to decide on a side ahead of time and then put your head down, charge forward and hit the ball with authority.
Rapinoe did that on both of her kicks. They were virtually un-save-able.
So coach Jill Ellis got that right - having Rapinoe take the PKs that is. But she made a mess of her substitutions. First and foremost she failed to make one until the 85th minute! In nearly 90 degree weather! Come on coach!
After the game Ellis argued that the team was playing well enough to justify not making a change. I'm not sure what game she was watching but in the one I saw on TV, the Spanish side was putting together solid stretches of possession and getting the ball deep into US territory with regularity. That didn't translate into huge scoring chances but they were still right there, consistently.
Ellis eventually made three changes in the final 12 minutes of the game but they didn't have time to make an impact other than contributing to a defensive effort that protected the lead.
And then the speculation could begin - was this primarily a bad game for the American side or a very good one for Spain? Not surprisingly the Spanish coach, Jorge Vilda, argued for the latter. And Spain was very impressive.
They also got away with being overly physical with Morgan in particular. The referee didn't seem to understand that multiple, essentially orchestrated fouls on one player is grounds for a yellow card, if not two cards for brutish Spanish players. She finally assessed one late in the second half after she called Spain for its 14th infraction.
My take is that while this wasn't America's greatest game and I still don't understand why dynamic young players like Mallory Pugh and Kristen Press are on the bench instead of in the lineup, the Spaniards' level of play was most impressive. They were far better than France was in its round-of-16 overtime win over Brazil the day before.
Unless France is able to massively raise its level of play against the US on Friday, it will bow out of the tournament. The home field advantage only goes so far and a sizable contingent of American fans have been a factor so far this tournament and will make themselves heard again in the quarterfinal.
Jim "Coach" Coffman welcomes your comments.
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