Football Features

How Rapinoe rescued USA in their hour of need v Spain at Women’s World Cup 2019

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 19:19, 24 June 2019

In an exciting and even game, USA beat Spain 2-1 in the Women’s World Cup.

The result saw the American favourites advance to the quarter-finals for a showdown against hosts France after a gruelling examination at the hands of Spain. Who were the winners and losers?

Winner: Megan Rapinoe

With her shock of purple hair standing on end, Megan Rapinoe looks more like a superhero than a footballer. In truth, she plays like a superhero too. The winger is elegance personified whenever she takes the field and whether she’s passing, dribbling or shooting everything she does look absolutely sublime.

Today against Spain she was such a driving force for the USA, and whenever they were dominant it was usually because Rapinoe was carrying the ball herself or she’d switched play to Tobin Heath on the other side. And of course when it came time to take the pressure penalties and put the USA into the lead, both in the 7th and 76th minutes; Rapinoe, wearing the captain’s armband, obliged with nerveless precision. Both penalties dispatched into the same space but put there so well that Sandra Paños had no chance.

When she was withdrawn in the 95th minute, the entire ground erupted in applause for her magnificent efforts and she received a standing ovation as she rounded the pitch and headed to the bench. A worthy appreciation for a supreme performance, rescuing the USA in their hour of need as any good superhero would.

Loser: VAR

VAR is obviously a superb tool to aid referees but it can be and has been overused in the 2019 World Cup, especially in the round of 16 where referees have gone to it for so many decisions. But at the very least, the officials can say that they have got decisions correct. Not today, though.

Today VAR had two moments to get a decision correct and failed both times. Even after multiple video reviews VAR still adjudged that Virginia Torrecilla had clipped Rose Lavelle when any contact was minimal and Lavelle had no control of the ball. It was such a harsh decision that cruelly swung the direction of the tie firmly back into the USA’s direction when Spain had been giving the Americans a real game.

Worse was right at the death when Sam Mewis clearly ran into the back of Irene Hernández’s leg as she was about volley the ball at goal unmarked from the edge of the box, but the referee didn’t blow and VAR failed to call attention to the blatant infringement that would have given Spain the chance for a dramatic and historic equaliser.

VAR is a superb tool, sure, but ultimately it is just another person’s opinion and thus prone to these kinds of slip-ups.

Winner: Jenni Hermoso

Spain’s captain Jenni Hermoso is really unlucky because she’s Spain’s best no. 9, their best no. 10 and arguably their best no. 8 as well. What this means is that she ends up having to play all three roles at various points during games for Spain, which wouldn’t necessarily be a huge problem but she’s achingly slow with and without the ball.

But when she has that ball at her feet? She is an absolute wizard. Her passing range is supreme, as is her sense of where and when to play those passes. And when she does get a chance to shoot? She is lethal. Coming into this monster game, Hermoso had scored twice – both from the penalty spot. But today, against the titanic American side, she stepped up in open play.

When Lucia Garcia’s pressing saw the ball fall to Hermoso just outside the box, you felt instant confidence. With two touches, Hermoso had set herself and then curled an unstoppable shot up and over the despairing Alyssa Naeher and into the back of the net. The first goal USA have conceded all tournament.

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Loser: Becky Sauerbrunn

Becky Sauerbrunn has played 160 times for the USA. She has been in the NWSL Best XI for the last six years in a row, winning defender of the year in three of those years. With her country she’s won the Nordic Cup (twice), CONCACAF Women’s Championship (three times), Olympic Gold in 2012 and the 2015 World Cup as well. But against Spain, she looked like the greenest rookie imaginable.

Not all game, sure, but mere moments after Megan Rapinoe had given America the lead, her goalkeeper gave her a short pass out from the back. It wasn’t a great pass, sure, but Sauerbrunn should have had enough experience to comfortably handle it. Either whack it clear or slip it back to Alyssa Naeher for an easy clearance. Instead, Sauerbrunn did what you never want to do and dawdled, allowing Lucia Garcia to pick her pocket and feed Jenni Hermoso who then scored.

This was the first goal conceded by the USA all tournament long, and worse still is it levelled things up in the match and resulted in the USA having to work much harder than expected. They clearly had one eye on the quarter-final against France, but because of Sauerbrunn’s slip-up, they had to really grind it out against a gutsy Spain.

Winner: Spain

Yes, Spain lost – but they gave such a sublime impression of themselves against USA that they can only be regarded as winners. Remember four years ago was their first World Cup and they lost every single game. Now they come to France off the back of Barcelona making the Champions League final with a focused squad that played supremely controlled football, lacking only a dynamic goalscorer in attack to properly compliment Jenni Hermoso.

They faced up to the juggernaut that is the USWNT and gave them an incredible fight. Before the game, no one gave them a chance and when the USA took the lead just seven minutes into the game there looked to be no hope; but Spain regained their composure and played their way back into the game. They forced a defensive error to snatch an equaliser and become the first side to score against the USA this tournament, and then for the rest of the game, it was an even contest.

Sure, the USA had slightly better of it; but they didn’t manage a shot on target besides the two penalties that they took. To hold a side as powerful as the USA to just two shots on goal, both from penalties, is a fabulous achievement. Who knows where Spain will be in another four years? Judging by the progress since 2015, they could be challenging for the title!

Loser: France

When it comes to minutes played, France have got 10 players who have featured for more than 280 minutes (including four who have played all 390 minutes so far). The USA have two, and one of them is their goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher. The level of fatigue in the legs of the host nation players as compared to the reigning Champions should be a genuine topic for concern. Spain showed today that you need physical energy to compete with the USA, which Spain had lots of because they played their group games at such a slow pace. France play fast football and now they’ll have to take on the best side in the world when more fatigued.

Worse, the USA were poor against Spain. You may think that is good for Spain, but a side as talented as the USA doesn’t play poorly for two consecutive games. More troubling is that they played poorly and still walked away with the win against a talented and organised opponent. They may have had just two shots on target but they held Spain to just one, and even that one they gifted them.

For all the horror of her mistake, Becky Sauerbraunn (and Abby Dahlkemper) handled the Spanish crosses with ease. And given that’s France’s main avenue of attack, then the hosts need to start being very worried because they now have to handle a more fresh USWNT, eager to prove their poor showing against Spain was just a blip. Oh, and their best midfielder (Lindsey Horan) will be back on the pitch, taking their game up another couple of levels. Duck and cover, sports fans!