U.S. forward Megan Rapinoe, front, celebrates with teammates after scoring during the opening minutes of a 2-1 victory over Spain at the Women's World Cup on Monday.
U.S. forward Megan Rapinoe, front, celebrates with teammates after scoring during the opening minutes of a 2-1 victory over Spain at the Women's World Cup on Monday. (Alessandra Tarantino / Associated Press)

The U.S. didn’t so much win its Women’s World Cup game with Spain on Monday as it did escape it.

The Americans entered the elimination rounds of the tournament unchallenged, unscored upon and unbeaten. In 90 intense minutes, Spain ticked off the first two of those boxes and almost got the third before the U.S. prevailed 2-1 on the second of two Megan Rapinoe penalty kicks to advance to a long-anticipated quarterfinal showdown with France on Friday in Paris.

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If the U.S. was happy to have survived, though, it was 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 tied one 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 defense. “A lot of teams have had that struggle match in group play. We didn’t.

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“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.”

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

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

The U.S. hadn’t given up a goal in this World Cup either but that streak lasted only nine minutes against Spain. After the U.S. 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 tie 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. “Tonight 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 U.S. 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 slow-motion video review. When Rose Lavelle tumbled to the turf after being brushed by midfielder Virginia Torrecilla the 71st minute, Hungarian referee Katalin Kulcsar 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 kick past a diving Sandra Panos and just inside the left post for the game winner.

“We practice these a lot,” said Rapinoe, whose first penalty-kick score came after Tobin Heath was brought down in the box by Maria Leon. “For us getting that routine and just going through that quite often and figuring out what that is, is extremely helpful.

“Obviously, you can never replicate having a knockout-round game on the line.”

Asked what happened, Lavelle replied sheepishly.

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“I don’t know,” she said. “I got a little kick in the shin and she called it. I was a little surprised [it was called] 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 U.S. 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.”

Added Lavelle: “Sometimes you have to win ugly and you have to dig deep. That whole game was kind of all about grit and how much we could handle when things weren’t going our way.

“Honestly, it was a big character builder for us. It’s definitely going to help us moving forward in the tournament.”

On Tuesday, the top-ranked U.S. will be moving toward Paris and a showdown with No. 4 France, the game everyone has circled on their calendar, the game everyone has anticipated and the game Ellis, for one, can’t wait to play.

“It means more, it matters more, there’s more at stake,” she said. “And that’s why you do this.

“You don’t go into professional sports or coaching if you are not in it for those purposes and those reasons. It’s going to be an amazing game.”

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