U.S. survives Spain at Women's World Cup thanks to controversial penalties

This time, there was no dominance. No comfort. No cruise. But journeys to World Cup finals are never smooth. They invariably require luck. And the U.S. women’s national team got some of it on Monday in Reims.

The Americans beat Spain 2-1 on two goals from captain Megan Rapinoe. Both came from the penalty spot. And the second one, a 76th-minute winner, was all kinds of questionable.

Rose Lavelle went down in the box under minimal contact. The referee pointed to the spot. And the USWNT’s path ultimately now points toward a quarterfinal showdown with France.

But only after a lengthy VAR review and plenty of controversy.

The decision to uphold the call on the field was the correct one. There was no “clear and obvious” error. Because there was contact – by the Spanish defender to Lavelle’s leg.

But the contact was slight. It wasn’t enough to make Lavelle fall in that way. A bit of necessary embellishment baited the referee into whistling. Many other refs would have waved play on.

The U.S., though, will not apologize. Nor should it. Winning a World Cup almost always means winning in multiple ways. Sometimes one of those ways is with a little good fortune.

U.S. takes an early lead

Any early nerves were eased by an out-of-nowhere attack down the U.S. right. Abby Dahlkemper turned around Spanish left back Leila Ouahabi with a brilliant long ball. Tobin Heath ran onto it. Her first touch took her inside Ouahabi and into the box. A covering defender caught Heath’s foot instead of the ball and conceded a penalty.

Rapinoe converted from the spot:

It was a second-consecutive early goal for the Americans, and their fourth in four games inside 12 minutes. The natural expectation was that Monday would go the way of the other three, and result in a comfortable U.S. victory.

But Spain – and the U.S. rearguard – had other ideas.

Spain’s goal wasn’t one player’s fault

Three minutes later, the quick start was undone by calamity. Spain swarmed as the Americans attempted to play out from the back. Becky Sauerbrunn coughed up possession. Jenni Hermoso punished the sluggishness:

It was the first goal the U.S. had conceded since early April, in 649 minutes of soccer. And it was the fault of not one player, but several.

To begin, the spacing wasn’t quite right. Playing out from the back requires refined structure. Playing to a center back in that position, with that body shape, is an unnecessary risk. Sauerbrunn should be picking up the ball with the entire field in her line of vision. She therefore shouldn’t even be where she was if the U.S. has designs on building from defense.

That said, Naeher – who was under no pressure – shouldn’t have played the ball.

And Sauerbrunn, in the end, had several passing options. Julie Ertz was one. Right back Kelley O’Hara was another. She chose neither because she wasn’t alert. In the end, she is more culpable than anyone.

But as with all criticism of the USWNT’s first-half shortcomings, Spain deserved credit. Jenni’s finish was majestic. And the underdogs, who had underwhelmed in the group stage, put up a heck of a fight.

The U.S. was superior, but not untouchable

Never did the U.S. look like the inferior side. It was dangerous throughout the first 45 minutes. Rose Lavelle was excellent, picking apart the Spanish midfield, speeding past opponents even with the ball at her feet. She played one killer through-ball, to Rapinoe, whose left-footed shot was saved at the near post.

Heath and Rapinoe both found space out wide. The latter almost got on the end of one cross from the former. Another cross from Crystal Dunn fizzed across the six-yard box untouched. Ertz skied a shot from around the penalty spot.

But the U.S. defense looked nervy. The costly gaffe wasn’t the only incident. Spain clearly sensed opportunity whenever the Americans were in possession deep in their own half.

And in the U.S. final third ... well, the striker was almost invisible. Alex Morgan simply wasn’t very involved. She didn’t look healthy. Wasn’t able to combine with the wingers.

The penalties bailed out an attack that wasn’t exactly clinical in front of goal. In four days, that will have to change.

The World Cup final, two rounds early

And now, on to France. Friday, July 28. Paris.

It’s the showdown everybody circled on calendars after the draw in December. The matchup that became even more enticing in January, when the hosts dealt the USWNT its only loss of the past 26 months.

The French have been considered the top challengers to the throne for some time now – by the media, bookies, and even by U.S. players. The mind games began before the tournament even did.

“I consider them the favorites, and I feel like all the pressure is on them," Rapinoe said days before World Cup kickoff.

And Lindsey Horan, at USWNT media day two weeks earlier: “I think they do have a little bit of pressure on their back playing at home. … And they’ve gotten so much better these past few years. It’s kind of a mentality thing for them.”

Now the talk will ramp back up. Then it will subside, and a soccer match worth of the World Cup final will commence. Tournament organizers and broadcasts will wish it arrived nine days later. But the occasion will be grand.

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Henry Bushnell is a features writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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