Yes, the United States beat Spain 2-1, thanks to two soft-ass penalties converted by Megan Rapinoe, to advance to the Women’s World Cup quarterfinals. And yes, we will get the clash of the titans between the USWNT and France on Friday in Paris. But it should not have been this difficult. The United States controlled most of the possession against the Spaniards (56 percent), with the Spaniards hanging in there with a lot of momentum-breaking fouls (18 to the U.S.’s four), and some aggressive pressing that seemed to confound the American backline. The real problems came in attack, though: the U.S. only managed two shots on target (the penalties), mostly due to the inability of their forwards (specifically Alex Morgan and Rapinoe) to latch on to any of the defense-splitting balls from the midfield.
Morgan especially was a non-factor on Monday, only really managing to get fouled (over and over again; five times on the day, most of any player). She was visibly struggling to run after balls even 10 yards ahead of her, probably a side effect of the knock she picked up against Sweden, but also of the physical defending employed by Spain on Monday. Of course, the United States’ biggest strength is probably their depth, and they could have easily brought in one of their many healthy attackers off the bench: Carli Lloyd, Mallory Pugh, Jess McDonald, or Christen Press.
Jill Ellis, who is in her second World Cup and fifth year in charge, decided that the best solution for her injured star striker was to ... leave her on the field until the 85th minute, when she finally made her first sub of the afternoon, bringing on Lloyd for Morgan. Rapinoe, meanwhile, stayed on an additional 10 minutes before eventually coming off for Press; perhaps her extended playtime on a day where she couldn’t reach a single through ball was a reward for scoring the two penalties with aplomb, but it was not particularly helpful for the open play prowess of the USWNT, particularly before her second tally.
Heading into the tournament, the biggest question mark for the United States—even more than the nervy defending or Alyssa Naeher at the back (though she did set up Spain’s only goal with a wayward pass out of the back)—was Ellis. Despite having the most top-to-bottom talent in the field, Ellis makes some questionable decisions, both tactically and personnel-wise. She almost by accident settled on a 4-3-3 that works, though there are still question marks about which three to play in the midfield (for my money, it’s Lindsey Horan, Sam Mewis, and Rose Lavelle, with Julie Ertz replacing Becky Sauerbrunn on the backline).
The U.S. can win despite Ellis, and often does, but she put the team in a difficult position by not simply substituting for a player who was evidently not 100 percent. Morgan is clearly the best American striker when healthy, but whatever injury she picked up against Sweden looked to have lingering effects, and the United States attack suffered for it. If the strong midfield trio of Ertz-Lavelle-Mewis can’t find runners with their pinpoint long passing, then what’s even the point?
Thanks to the bailout penalty call in favor of Lavelle, these are questions that did not need to be answered on Monday, but now shit is getting real, with host France looming. If Morgan plays like she did today, will Ellis sub her, say, 40 minutes earlier? Should Morgan even start? The next few days will be key in that regard, but on a bigger, macro level, Ellis needs to figure out how to balance sticking to her guns with adapting to the situation at hand. Spain couldn’t capitalize on the USWNT playing, essentially, one woman down for most of the game, but France has the talent and tactical knowledge to do just that.