REIMS, France — If you thought the knockout round of the Women’s World Cup would be about playing beautiful soccer, sorry, you’ve come to the wrong place.
This is about survival, finding one’s grit and making sure you can play another day.
That’s what the United States accomplished Monday in rather unspectacular fashion.
Riding a pair of Megan Rapinoe penalty kicks, the defending champions survived to play another day by grinding out an ugly 2-1 win over Spain in the round of 16 before 19,633 at Stade Auguste-Delaune.
“Tonight there was a lot of resolve,” coach Jill Ellis said.
The top-ranked Americans’ prize is a highly anticipated quarterfinal confrontation with fourth-ranked France in Paris on Friday.
The win hardly was highlight video-worthy. Team USA produced a howler that resulted in Spain’s goal. Its attack never got into full gear after scoring a tournament-high 18 goals in the group stage.
“We showed just a lot of grit and experience in this game,” said Rapinoe, who converted the game-winner in the 76th minute. “When you get into these knockout rounds, it’s more stressful, it’s more pressure. The games are more intense. Every team lifts the level.”
Defender Crystal Dunn, a Rockville Centre native, said: “A lot of being in the World Cup is being able to pull out any tool that you need. We played a game three days ago. We knew we might have had tired legs. It’s really between the ears. You’ve got to want it more. This team really dug deep. We wanted to win. We had to win.”
Tobin Heath was taken down in the box by Maria Leon in the seventh minute and Rapinoe scored her first penalty in the lower left as goalkeeper Sandra Panos dived the wrong way.
In the ninth minute, Spain took advantage of a mistake by goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who sent a goal kick into traffic to center back Becky Sauerbrunn. Lucia Garcia stripped Sauerbrunn and slipped it to Jennifer Hermoso, who curled home a shot from the top of the penalty arc to tie it. It was the first goal given up by the Americans in the tournament.
“I just tried to do a little too much,” Naeher said. “I shouldn’t have played the ball into a pressure pocket. I should have played it much higher up on the field.”
Ellis thought the way Naeher and Sauerbrunn bounced back was “brilliant.”
“Those moments, they can actually destroy a team, unravel a team,” Ellis said. “I actually think the mental capacity is the strength of this team. They kind of parked it and moved on.”
Rapinoe again played hero after referee Katalin Kulcsar awarded the United States a penalty when Virginia Torrecilla tripped Rose Lavelle in the box.
Rapinoe was ready to give the kick to Alex Morgan. “I took the first one and thought to switch it up,” she said. But Morgan told her to take it.
“So I didn’t really feel pressure to begin with,” Rapinoe said. “Just tried to stay calm.”
Panos guessed correctly, but Rapinoe again drilled it into the left side before Panos could get a hand on it.
Rapinoe just can’t wait for Friday at Parc des Princes.
“Hopefully a complete spectacle, an absolute maybe circus,” she said. “I hope it’s huge and crazy, the best game everybody wanted, I think we wanted. It seems they’re up for it and you guys are up for it. Maybe it will be a pretty even split between the fans at the stadium. This is the kind of games you dream about as a kid.”
Sweden 1, Canada 0: Stina Blackstenius scored early in the second half in Paris as Sweden advanced to the quarterfinals. Canada had a chance to pull even in the 69th minute, but goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl stopped Janine Beckie’s penalty kick. Ninth-ranked Sweden will face No. 2 Germany on Saturday in Rennes. — AP