Even with SheBelieves Cup victory, U.S. women recognize rapid rise in Spanish soccer

HARRISON, N.J. -- There was no historic result, no first-ever result for Spain against the United States. But as possession piled up for the visitors, and as the world soccer champions searched for answers, you got the feeling that Sunday will come up when history eventually gets written.

The new coach has settled in, Olympic qualifying is complete and a chance awaits to become the first team to win World Cup and Olympic titles in back-to-back seasons. The present is in good shape -- and it would have been even if Julie Ertz hadn't found a seam in front of goal and headed home a Christen Press free kick in the closing minutes to secure a 1-0 win that puts the U.S. in commanding position to win the 2020 SheBelieves Cup.

But maybe for the first time since Vlatko Andonovski took over last fall, the U.S. got a good look at the future. When Spain eventually wins a World Cup, whether that is in three years or 23 years, Sunday's game was the kind someone will dig up in the origin story.

"They control the ball really well," Megan Rapinoe said after the U.S. improved to 9-0-0 with its eighth consecutive shutout under Andonovski. "I think the range in possession is getting a lot better -- they can go big if they need to, they can go short. Just their control over the ball and over the game is really impressive. You know, the final piece is still what they're lacking a little bit and just creating a lot of chances. It's hard, a team like that, the other team is usually going to sit in, so you've got to break them down and play against that block.

"But their control over the game is impressive."

This was the third time in a little more than a year that the U.S. played Spain. The progress from the first game in Spain last winter to a World Cup meeting in the round of 16 to Sunday was readily apparent. Even on home turf, Spain struggled to stay with the U.S. in the first game (won by the U.S. 1-0). The World Cup meeting (the U.S. won 2-1) was far more competitive, the Spanish competing with the U.S. physically in a way few other teams did during the tournament in France.

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Spain didn't qualify for a Women's World Cup until 2015. It made its first appearance in the Euros just two years earlier. So many U.S. stars talk about growing up watching Spanish football, idolizing the male stars who played for giants such as Barcelona and Real Madrid. But for decades, perhaps even more than England, Spain represented the greatest European disconnect between a soccer-obsessed country and a cultural unwillingness to extend that passion to women playing the sport.

But even if culture changes slowly, Spanish women's football is spreading like wildfire. The country is now almost a juggernaut at the youth international level, fielding deep, impressive teams in U-17 and U-20 World Cups. It has an increasingly relevant professional league that operates under increasingly professional structure -- players recently winning a collective bargaining agreement after briefly going on strike.

Like France, but perhaps with an even more deeply ingrained sense of the game, Spain is showing what is possible when a large country with a soccer culture and some financial means begins to take the women's game seriously.

And as they connected pass after pass Sunday, keeping the U.S. pressure at bay and denying Rose Lavelle time on the ball or Carli Lloyd chances to direct play, Spanish players looked the part of a program on the rise. An unfinished rise, to be sure, for a team that still slots in behind several other European contenders. But a rise that will be difficult to arrest.

"I feel like their program in general is just on the rise," Becky Sauerbrunn said. "Even at the World Cup, it felt very similar, in that it was very uncomfortable because we're used to having the ball, we're used to setting play. And against Spain, sometimes you're really reactionary because they can pull one person out and then the dominos fall and other people are getting pulled out."

The difference for the moment was summed up when the U.S. subbed on Tobin Heath and Press for Lloyd and Rapinoe midway through the second half. No other country in the world has that kind of depth at its disposal. And sure enough, with the U.S. gradually getting its share of possession in the second half, Press put a free kick on Ertz's head for the goal.

"I could say Christen, Tobin and Pinoe are probably the top three in the world, and they're all on one team," Ertz said of the U.S. set piece specialists. "It's pretty unreal. I watch them in training every day. ... It's craft that [Press] has, and she continues to work on. That's the coolest part: She's probably one of the best in the world and she never stops working on it. That's a credit to her. All I have to do is get my head on it. She makes it easy."

So the U.S. moves on to face Japan on Wednesday, needing only a draw to clinch the tournament title (and potentially winning the trophy even in a defeat). In the short term, Sunday's game helped a U.S. team that appears headed to the Olympics as the heavy favorite. Spain forced the U.S. to adjust, forced it to defend, to stay cohesive in a low block. And the U.S. did, keeping its resolve long enough to find its goal.

"We always knew that this tournament was going to be much more difficult than the games we had played before," Rapinoe said. "Qualifying is difficult in its own right, in if you lose, you don't go on. So that adds that pressure. But we're playing three of some of the top teams in the world. These are the teams we're going to have to go through [to win the Olympics] -- or teams like this.

"So this was not a great performance by us, I'm sure we'll have a lot of film to watch and things to work on. But I think these performances are always better and more telling than if we go out and smash teams and everyone feels jolly about themselves."

The best news of all might be that Spain won't be in Tokyo. But its time is coming.