USA 2-1 Spain
Well, this certainly went differently than Jill Ellis probably expected. I hope we all learned a valuable lesson here about undervaluing your opponent and not starting Lindsey Horan and not using substitutions at potentially advantageous moments, Jill.
Jenni Hermoso answered an early Megan Rapinoe penalty quickly to even the score, and the USWNT's World Cup hopes were kept alive by another dubious penalty that went to VAR, was allowed to advance, and that Rapinoe took successfully. Spain proved they were contenders and the USWNT advance in spite of coaching from the Sonja Morgan School of Messiness.
What We Learned:
- NEVER. SLEEP. ON. YOUR. OPPONENT. I think many USWNT fans (and also probably Jill Ellis) were expecting this to be a walk, judging by the decision to leave Lindsey Horan, arguably the USWNT's anchor, on the bench. Horan had picked up a yellow in an earlier match and the logic to not risk her being suspended in a quarterfinal against France makes sense. Spain is improved, but they're still Spain, we all said, like naïve, sad children.
And then Jenni Hermoso responded to Megan Rapinoe's first strike and equalized, and both squads headed to the locker room knotted at one goal. Hermoso capitalized on a huge one-two error from Alyssa Naeher and Becky Sauerbrunn, and everyone looked caught off guard. Sweden made the USWNT look fallible, but Spain took it a step further and did the soccer equivalent of making all of Becky Sauerbrunn's GChats public.
- Subs Are Meant to Be Used: Jill Ellis' decision-making today was somewhere on the Chutzpah Scale between "Alexi Lalas Attempting a Music Career" and "Rahm Emanuel Writing An Op-Ed About Systemic Racial Injustice." After the first half, Becky Sauerbrunn looked exhausted and Alex Morgan was struggling. Halftime was an optimal point to make a few substitutions, inject some necessary energy into the attack, and give your starting center back a proper rest before facing France on Friday, let alone even securing a spot in the quarterfinal.
- Sam Mewis, again: You know how there was always one kid in the class who got stuck doing the entire group project for everyone else? Today, that was Sam Mewis, who was at least partly responsible for the first half not going worse for the USWNT. She was out here setting up the attack with smart passing and leaving a small trail of smoke behind her to make sure a dangerous La Roja ball got cleared efficiently.
- Lucía García: You could feel the energy change through your TV screen whenever Lucía García had the ball. She would barrel into the space, overwhelming the USWNT back line and looking dangerous with every chance. Even if you were cheering on the US, it was hard to deny how thrilling it was to watch her. Spain may not have walked away with the win today, but fans were on social media calling for a statue of her to be built at the San Mamés in Bilbao. A stadium for Vero, a statue for Lucía – I like the sound of that.
- Monday Morning Center Backs are awful. There is nothing worse than people shouting into the void on Twitter where the coach and players are certainly not looking in the moment and cannot hear you. And yet. Today's collective social media primal scream at Jill Ellis felt like a necessary moment of catharsis and camaraderie. It felt, dare I say, good.
- The Christen Press / Jenni Hermoso friendship is just so delightful and their embrace coming off the pitch was a necessary moment of joy and reprieve in a messy few days of this tournament. Ladies supporting ladies!
- Can't wait for all the takes about how a crying Becky Sauerbrunn coming off the pitch is a bad example for all the children watching at home OH WAIT
The USWNT faces their toughest opponent of this tournament so far on Friday: a formidable French squad with home pitch advantage. Les Bleues have weathered a more difficult path to the quarterfinals, facing and vanquishing Norway and Brazil’s Golden Generation in their likely World Cup final bow. The recovery days for both sides will be more than necessary after a pair of battering knockout matches, and if everyone stays healthy, this will be the match of the tournament.
Spain walks away from this World Cup a contender whose players should be the envy of every top-flight women's club. They finish with their best World Cup performance of all time and names like Jenni Hermoso and Lucía García reverently on the lips of fans around the world. They will be back, and lest we forget, this is a very young squad (Lucía García is 20!) – they'll be an even bigger threat in four years.
Canada 0-1 Sweden
This game honestly felt like a relief compared to those that came before it. After the rollercoaster that has been the first five knockout matches, from the extra-time heartbreakers to Marta's tearful, impassioned Speech of the Tournament to the entire ugly mess that was the England-Cameroon match and aftermath, it was nice to just breathe and watch a subdued, defensive 45 minutes without any major dramatic chances for either side.
And then, when we'd all finally recovered in the second half, the Kosovare Asllani-Stina Blackstenius one-two attack punch finally broke through, with Blackstenius racing to catch Asllani's pass to beat Stephanie Labbé and find the back of the net. Canada had the opportunity to equalize, but Hedvig Lindahl came up big to deny Janine Beckie on a penalty.
What We Learned:
- What even counts as a foul in this tournament anymore?: Does anyone know? Do you? Do the refs? Do the people in their little VAR compound? The officiating stays wildly inconsistent and it is really beginning to wear on everyone.
- Do right by the kids: The Canadian national team owes a lot to Christine Sinclair, who has been as tireless of an advocate off the pitch for investment in the women's game as she has been directing the squad’s movement on it. This could be her last World Cup, and under her captaincy, we've seen lots of talent and promise in this tournament from the young Canadians on the squad like Jayde Riviere, who put in work today, and Deanne Rose. Kadeisha Buchanan is 23; Ashley Lawrence is 24. This team can thrive beyond the Sinclair Era, but only with improved, sustained and genuine investment from Canada Soccer.
- Kadeisha Buchanan: It could have been a lot worse for Canada had it not been for Kadeisha Buchanan. Staving off a fast and tenacious attack with the likes of Blackstenius, Asllani, and Sofia Jakkobson is no easy feat, and she timed her tackles well to keep Canada in the game. She did net a yellow card late in the match, which meant she would have sat out the quarterfinal, which would have been a huge loss for Canada.
- Hedvig Lindahl: WHAT A SAVE! Janine Beckie struck her penalty well with the sort of satisfying thud that's like soccer ASMR, and Lindahl met it and denied Canada a necessary equalizer. Canada had fewer truly dangerous attacking moments than the Swedes, but a clean sheet and a penalty save ahead of the quarterfinals sure feels nice.
- Sweden's fans out here with the energy and the Very Big Drum. Love it.
- "Christine Sinclair should have taken the penalty" is probably a lazy take, but that doesn't mean it's any less correct.
Sadly, Christine Sinclair won't break Abby Wambach's record, at least not in this tournament. After a hardworking, valiant run, Canada is eliminated, but not without plenty to build on in the future. Sweden will take on the seemingly impervious German squad in the quarterfinals on Saturday.