The soccer had come easy for the United States in the group stage — a record rout and two comprehensive victories — but the Spanish exam exposed vulnerability and further thickened the plot ahead of the Paris showdown.
Putting a positive spin on it, the delegation said facing adversity for the first time in the tournament will prove beneficial.
“We welcome a challenge, and that’s exactly what [it] was,” midfielder Samantha Mewis said. “This tournament is not supposed to be easy. It’s these kinds of things that let us know that we’re strong and we can grind through something. It gives us a lot of faith in ourselves.”
Everyone was also in agreement the team will need to raise its game against France, which struggled in its own right before ousting Brazil in extra time Sunday.
Untested in the group stage, the U.S. defense showed cracks that a more seasoned opponent, such as France, could exploit.
Some in the French media were not impressed by the U.S. resistance.
Writing in Le Parisien, Dominique Severac compared outside backs Crystal Dunn and Kelley O’Hara to Gruyere, which, unlike the Swiss original, is made here with holes. He also described the central defensive partnership of Becky Sauerbrunn and Abby Dahlkemper as “moldy.”
Cheesiness aside, U.S. Coach Jill Ellis will need to formulate a plan to thwart a French side that, despite having scoring issues since striking four times in the tournament opener against South Korea, remains a potent foe that will feed off a feverish crowd of more than 45,000 at Parc des Princes.
Ellis could make changes on the corners — Tierna Davidson and Ali Krieger performed well against Chile in the second group match — and by sliding defensive midfielder Julie Ertz into central defense.
The U.S. challenges in harnessing Spain’s possession and transition were collective. Too often, Spain exposed space between the midfield and back line. Crosses into the penalty area were a concern.
Goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher had a few uneasy moments, most notably on Spain’s tying goal in the ninth minute, when she made an ill-advised pass and Sauerbrunn relinquished possession.
In the attack as well, the Americans were a little off.
There were also questions about Ellis’s substitution plan. Despite a wealth of options in reserve — Krieger has said the United States has the first- and second-best squads in the world — Ellis did not make any moves until after her team had regained the lead on a controversial call and subsequent penalty kick in the 75th minute.
Before the goal, the match was begging for fresh legs and fresh ideas.
Ellis defended her inaction by saying: “It felt that we started to gain momentum. As a coach, you have to read that moment because a player can look absolutely fatigued and suddenly things change and they get their legs again.”
After Megan Rapinoe’s tie-breaking penalty kick, Ellis waited another 10 minutes before turning to the bench: Carli Lloyd entered, then Lindsey Horan in the 89th and Christen Press in the seventh — and last — minute of stoppage time.
Pushing her starters suggests Ellis might have saved her key reserves for prominent roles Friday, when fatigue could come into play. France needed 30 minutes of extra time to settle its match, and the United States will have one fewer day of rest and preparation.
Lloyd replaced striker Alex Morgan, who, after missing the second half of the group finale against Sweden with a knee issue, was slow to rise twice Monday. She has not scored since netting a record-tying five goals against Thailand in the opener and does not appear to be performing at full strength.
In making her lineup decisions and possible substitutions, Ellis will have to consider the weather. A brutal heat wave sweeping across Europe will add to the factors, though a late kickoff (9 p.m. local time) will provide some relief. The long-range forecast calls for the temperature to be 84 degrees with rising humidity.
Reflecting on the hard time Spain gave the United States, Naeher said: “You win games in different ways. Sometimes you score a lot of goals; sometimes you have to come through and keep pushing and pushing and pushing and wait for your breakthrough.
“It’s a big step for us, a good test for us. It’s the nature of the tournament: It’s going to get tougher and tougher.”