This is why the U.S. women should be very careful against Spain on Monday / Opinion

The U.S. Women’s World Cup team best be in peak form at noon on Monday because it will take a mighty effort to knock Spain out of this tournament in the Round of 16. “Tiki taka”, the slick, short passing style once reserved for Spanish boys and men is now gender neutral.

Spaniards are taking Futbol Femenino extremely seriously these days.

So seriously that a crowd of 60,739 showed up at Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in Madrid on March 17 to watch the women’s teams of Atletico Madrid and FC Barcelona play a league game. Read that number again. Carefully. 60,739 for a women’s regular-season club game.

It was the largest crowd in history for a women’s club match, and it knocked Lionel Messi’s hat trick that same day off the front pages of Spanish newspapers. Two months earlier, 48,121 fans packed into Athletic Bilbao’s San Mames stadium for a Spanish women’s cup game between Athletic and Atletico Madrid.

The mighty Real Madrid, feeling left out of the women’s soccer party, announced on Saturday it would be adding a women’s team next year. It’s about time! Also, the Spanish soccer federation committed last week to invest $23 million on La Liga’s women’s teams and air top games on T.V. Bravo!

The surge in Spanish women’s soccer is evident at this World Cup.

Fifteen players from FC Barcelona are in the Round of 16, and 10 of them play for Spain. The Spanish national team went from unranked to No. 13 in the world in a hurry, and a wave of young talent is right behind these players. In December 2018, Spain won the U17 Women’s World Cup over Mexico. Last fall, Spain was runner-up to Japan in the U20 Women’s World Cup.

Much has been written in the past week about how the United States will have a tough path to the World Cup title with potential matches against host France in the quarterfinal and England in the semifinal. It has been assumed the defending champion U.S. team will get past Spain; and while the Americans certainly are super-talented and favorites on Monday, this match may prove more difficult than people expect.

Spain breezed through World Cup qualifying, beating Austria, Finland, Serbia and Israel by a combined score of 25-2. “La Roja,” as the Spanish team is nicknamed, won World Cup tune-up matches against England, Brazil and the Netherlands.

It finished second in Group B last week with a 1-1-1 record, the lone loss 1-0 to Germany.

Maybe most telling, back in January, U.S. coach Jill Ellis very wisely made it a point to play a friendly against Spain. Well aware the upstart Spaniards were coming on strong, she scheduled a game in the Spanish city of Alicante. It was the first time the two teams met.

Spain showcased its technical skills in that match, and proved it could string passes together against the Americans. The game was deadlocked 0-0 at halftime, and the United States wound up winning 1-0 on a second-half goal by Christen Press.

The Spaniards dominated possession in all three World Cup group games so far, with 72 percent in a 3-1 win over South Africa, 59 percent in the loss to Germany and 61 percent in a 0-0 tie with China.

They have had trouble finishing their chances (they took 24 shots against China and none reached the back of the net), but they will likely penetrate the U.S. defense more than Thailand, Chile or even Sweden. U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher will be tested.

The good news for the United States: Julie Ertz, who sat out the Sweden game with a minor injury, and Alex Morgan, who got dinged up in the first half against Sweden, are both expected to start.

A full-strength American team playing its best should win this game. But if they let their guard down, or look ahead to the quarterfinals, Spain could pull off an upset.

U.S. players say they are pumped for the challenge.

I say bring it on,” Ali Krieger told reporters Saturday. “You come here to play the best teams, to be the best. Because if we didn’t, people would say, ‘Oh, they only played so and so, and they only played so and so and this was an easy route for them.’

“No. I want to play every team that is ranked first in this tournament just so that we can lift that trophy and feel that rewarding feeling at the end. To say, `You know what? We are the best.’”

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