Nothing like elimination games to inject excitement into a soccer tournament, right? Not that USA and Sweden had to worry about that; both countries had already qualified for the knockout stage, so the only suspense involved was whether Sweden would win and pip our women to first place in the group. Despite some trash-talking by the Swedes beforehand (which was actually somewhat earned), Lindsey Horan tapped in a corner kick two minutes into the match, and USA never looked like relinquishing the lead in a 2-0 victory. Much more exciting stuff happened elsewhere, and we’ve got it all here.
Should USA have tanked the match?
As late as a day before the game, this was a legitimate question. Before the tournament even started, pundits were looking at the format and saw that if USA and France both topped their respective groups and then won their round of 16 games, the two countries would meet in the quarterfinals. Taking on Les Bleues on their home soil would be a formidable task, but had USA lost the Sweden game and finished second, they would be looking at a round of 16 matchup with bitter rivals Canada, followed by a probable date with Germany. That’s not an easier route, so Coach Jill Ellis likely figured that USA might as well try to win. As a result, the round of 16 game is against Spain.
Spain has to pretty good, right?
Actually, Spain is another country where the women’s team hasn’t matched the men, likely because their previous coach, Ignacio Quereda, was a crony of the soccer association president who spent 25 years sitting on his ass and yelling verbal abuse at his players. Now that a player revolt forced out Quereda’s mismanagement, new coach Jorge Vilda has La Roja playing solid defense, led by team captain Marta Torrejón, with Irene Paredes partnering her in central defense and Ivana Andrés providing push from the fullback spot. Up front, Spain has goalscorer extraordinaire Jennifer Hermoso (what a pretty name!), the best striker USA has faced so far in this tournament. Beating Spain will take some doing. Fortunately, USA’s offense and midfield looked irresistible against Sweden (even with Megan Rapinoe having a subpar game) before Ellis started taking out players to protect them from injury, likely with visions of Kevin Durant’s ruptured Achilles dancing in her head.
Why are so many of these games being interrupted by VAR checks?
FIFA implemented new rules before this season regarding penalty kicks, with goalkeepers required to keep one foot or part of one foot on the goal line before the shooter takes the penalty. Football365.com (an otherwise excellent soccer website whose coverage of this tournament has been woefully lacking) has a statistical breakdown of how this has impacted the men’s game. In this tournament, South Africa’s Kaylin Swart got a potentially morale-boosting penalty save against the Germans, only to be called for the foul and forced into a retake, which she gave up for a goal. You can argue that that didn’t make a difference in Germany’s 4-0 win, but the same can’t be said for Nigeria. The Super Falcons were screwed out of a creditable draw with France (and almost out of the tournament) after Wendie Renard missed a penalty, only for the referee to cite Nigeria keeper Chiamaka Nnadozie for being off her line on the shot. And Lee Alexander seemingly blocked a weak penalty by Argentina that would have preserved a win for Scotland and booked their place in the next round, only for instant replay to find her foot arguably off the line. Argentina’s retaken penalty sent Scotland crashing out in humiliating fashion. This isn’t even accounting for numerous delays for checking handballs in the penalty area, offside, and other infractions.
Man, this sounds like it sucks.
The thing is, the whole instant replay review system was put in place to defuse controversies. Just ask any Mexico fan about the “no era penal” game against Netherlands at World Cup 2006, which VAR would have corrected. In fact, you’ll still find some German fans who are mad about the final of World Cup 1966. (They’ll tell you, “Geoff Hursts Schuss nicht überquerte die Torlinie!”)
The thing is, video review now has too much sway. Surely there’s a middle ground for common sense, like the NFL’s rule that a call must be obviously wrong on replay to be overturned. Also, it would be great if these referees got the calls right in the first place so that we didn’t need to stop the game so the arbiter could stare at a TV screen. The standard of refereeing in the women’s game has gone up since 2015, but it’s still not where it needs to be.
How much sympathy do you have for Scotland?
Not much, really. That call on the penalty kick was ticky-tack, but the Scots held a 3-0 lead with 16 minutes remaining and frittered it all away, turning what should have been a comfortable win into an unforgettable thriller. Defensive lapses put Milagros Menéndez and Flor Bonsegundo through on breakaways that they converted, and defensive substitute Sophie Howard panicked and gave away that penalty in obvious fashion to put the Scots in hell. The epic choke wasted a fine effort by Scotland’s offense, which finally roared to life here. (Also to blame is referee Ri Hyang-ok, who should have put at least eight extra minutes of stoppage time on the clock to give someone a chance to win. If you have a problem with this, don’t bother taking it up with her. She’s from North Korea. She lives under Kim Jong-un’s government. Do you think she’s going to be intimidated by little old you?) As for the Argentines, they wound up going out of the tourney despite that, but they pulled off the biggest comeback in Women’s World Cup history, and they did it with their main offensive players out of the game. That’s something for them to take back home, along with their draw against Japan.
Was Argentina-Scotland the most thrilling game of the group stage?
Yes, but it had serious competition. Cameroon was in a similar position to Scotland but managed to extricate themselves. The Indomitable Lionesses needed a win over New Zealand to survive, and seemed to have it well in hand until the 80th minute, when defender Aurelle Awona, under minimal pressure, sliced a clearance into her own net to knot the score at 1-1. Had Cameroon folded up after that disaster, we would have understood, but instead Ajara Nchout faked defender Ria Percival out of her shoes and sent the game-winning shot past Erin Nayler (excellent in the thankless task as New Zealand’s goalkeeper) with the last kick of the game to take Awona off the hook. (If you’re watching Cameroon in their game against England, keep an eye on defender Michaela Abam, who is from Houston.) Elsewhere, the Chile-Thailand game had unusual suspense, with the Chileans needing a three-goal victory to progress. They bagged two and then won a penalty kick in the 85th minute, only for Francisca Lara to send her penalty crashing off the crossbar. She’s an easy scapegoat, but the whole Chilean team missed a bevy of scoring chances gifted to them by Thailand’s near-nonexistent defense. At least Christiane Endler comes away from this World Cup with a clean sheet, and if you believe in footballing karma (which I don’t), Chile’s failure to get that third goal meant that Nigeria got justice for that France loss by going through in their place. It’s the first time two African teams have made the knockout stage at this tournament. (Meanwhile, I note that in the men’s World Cup last year, African countries went 0-for-5 on this score.) The Super Falcons may have backed into their playoff berth, but just ask them whether they care.
Yay, we get to talk about brackets! Where does this leave the bracket?
France vs. Brazil is a battle of marquee names, but despite Brazil’s win over an Italy team with nothing to play for, I’d expect the French to pick them apart. Sweden now faces Canada, and after watching USA make all sorts of hay against Sweden by having their wingers cut into the middle, I’d say Canada’s best shot is having their wing players (Janine Beckie and, uh, Nichelle Prince?) do the same. Or does Coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller bring playmaker Jessie Fleming out of mothballs? If this game goes to penalties, I’d trust Sweden’s Hedvig Lindahl more than Canada’s Stephanie Labbé. Tuesday’s games feature China vs. Italy and Japan vs. Netherlands, and I’d pick the European teams over the Asian teams in those matchups. Japan may have run rings around Scotland with their technical prowess, but they lack a cutting edge against better opposition, and Netherlands decisively outplayed the Canadians even with a quiet game from Lieke Martens. Meanwhile, China’s one victory came from an overmatched South Africa, and their goalless draw was against a Spain team that also had little incentive to win. I’m not taking them against an Italy side I believe in. We get a day off before all this starts again on Friday with Germany vs. Nigeria and an Australia vs. Norway game that I’m afraid to predict. Unpredictability is why we watch.