Crystal Dunn, Julie Ertz, Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh
From left: Crystal Dunn, Julie Ertz, Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh of the US team greet fans after their Women’s World Cup round of 16 match against Spain on Monday. Image Credit: New York Times

Reims: The US didn’t so much win their Women’s World Cup game with Spain on Monday as escape it.

The Americans entered the elimination rounds of the tournament unchallenged, unbreached and unbeaten. In 90 intense minutes, Spain ticked off the first two of those boxes and almost got the third before the US prevailed 2-1 thanks to two Megan Rapinoe penalties to advance to a long-anticipated quarter-final showdown with France on Friday in Paris.

If the US were happy to have survived, though, they were also thankful for the challenge Spain provided. Because after a group stage in which the Americans set a World Cup record by scoring 18 goals and equalled another by not giving up a goal, even the players admitted everything had seemed too easy.

Spain changed that in a hurry.

“This game was really important for us,” said Alex Morgan, who was pounded by a physical Spanish defence. “A lot of teams have had that struggle match in group play. We didn’t. So coming in and being challenged and being even throughout most of the match, it was really important for us to get this game behind us moving forward to France.”

Coach Jill Ellis added: “In terms of what this game gave us and the takeaways from it, massive.”

The US never trailed Spain, but for 74 minutes the game was level. Until Monday, the Americans hadn’t gone more than 11 minutes without a lead.

The US hadn’t given up a goal in this World Cup either but that streak lasted only nine minutes against Spain. After the US took a 1-0 lead on Rapinoe’s first penalty kick in the seventh minute, Spain evened things when a poor pass from goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher to defender Becky Sauerbrunn was poked away by Lucia Garcia to forward Jennifer Hermoso, who lifted a shot over a back-peddling Naeher to level the score.

For a team that hadn’t lost a game in 23 months, and hadn’t trailed in one at a World Cup in eight years, it was game on. And Ellis was heartened by how the team responded.

“Most of our veteran players have been in the pressure cooker in huge moments,” she said. “There was a lot of grit, a lot of resolve. That mental piece, you can have all the tactics in the world but that essence of self-belief, that’s critical. And these players have that.”

The US outshot the Spaniards 12-5, outpossessed them, outpassed them and outdefended them. Yet, the game turned, as so many have in this World Cup, on review. When Rose Lavelle tumbled to the turf after being brushed by midfielder Virginia Torrecilla the 71st minute, Hungarian referee Katalin Kulscar blew her whistle and pointed to the spot.

The video assistant referee then called down to Kulscar and advised her to have another look at Torrecilla’s challenge. And after reviewing the play at least a dozen times from multiple angles during a four-minute delay, Kulscar confirmed her call and Rapinoe calmly slotted a second penalty past a diving Sandra Panos and just inside the left post for the game winner.

“We practise these a lot,” said Rapinoe. “For us getting that routine and just going through that quite often and figuring out what that is, is extremely helpful.”

Asked what happened, Lavelle replied sheepishly.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I got a little kick in the shin and she called it. I was a little surprised because it was definitely a physical match but at the same time, a foul’s a foul. I did get kicked. I didn’t flop.”

The Spaniards saw things differently, saying the penalty was a soft call.

“I actually think we deserved more,” said midfielder Vicky Losada, who left the field with a blackened right eye, the result of an elbow from a US player that wasn’t ruled a foul. “But you know, sometimes football is like that.”

And victories can be like that, too — unattractive, inexplicable and defining.

“We grinded this one out,” Naeher said. “It’s the World Cup. There are no easy games left.”