United States v. Spain (2-1)
The United States came into this game star-studded favorites with a goal differential of 18+ and having yet to concede a goal. Massive favorites, Spain would have a huge test ahead of them coming out of Group B with a win, a loss, and a draw.
It would be a physical game, and it would be shown early. Tobin Heath attempting to cut with the ball went down in the box in the 5th minute, setting up a penalty which Megan Rapinoe converted in the next. Although the lead would not last very long. Conceding a few minutes later, Alyssa Naeher, playing far out of the box, moved the ball to a heavily covered Becky Sauerbrunn where it was stolen from her, and Jennifer Hermoso rocketd the ball into the corner breaking the United States shutout streak of over 640 minutes. The United States would get a chance to break the draw a few minutes later as a through ball to Megan Rapinoe set her up for a good shot, but it was saved going far post. After that, the game was mostly choppy, choppy, and you guessed it, choppy.
The second half continued to be equally as choppy as the first from Spain, with both Heath, Morgan, and O’Hara spending some time on the ground early in. The latter of which could easily have been a red card with studs showing. Despite the physicality, the United States were easily the better team through the first 15 minutes with attack after attack, including a screamer by Rose Lavelle, which went just over the bar. The pressure would pay off, and the referee would point to the spot in the 71st minute for the United States on what was probably been the softest penalty of a plethora of PK calls made during this World Cup. Four minutes later, Megan Rapinoe would convert it to give the USA an edge going into the final section of the game. Ultimately, the United States wouldn’t dominate, and Jill Ellis failed to to make a sub until the 85th minute in spite of plenty of evidence of fatigue, leaving plenty of questions ahead of on paper with the best game of the tournament coming up in the quarterfinal matchup against France.
Canada v. Sweden (1-0)
The Round of 16 matchup between Canada and Sweden would be a rematch of a fixture earlier in the year where the two countries went to a 0-0 draw, with Canada winning on penalties. Both of these teams won their first two matches in group play, followed by a loss in the final group stage game. For Canada, it was the Netherlands, and for Sweden, it would be the United States. Both would need to rectify the previous loss with a win in order to stay in the tournament.
The first half wasn’t filled with loads of excitement. Trying to attack, both teams came up empty. Sweden tried to play over the top, but the Canadian backline shut things down pretty effectively within the opening minutes. The first real chance for Canada came in the seventh minute, but a corner kick opportunity came out completely wasted. Afterwards, the narrative turned a little more Swedish after several opportunities resulted in their first shot of the game in the 18th minute. For Canada, Jessie Fleming found herself near the ball off a bounce, but the 21-year-old smacked it not even remotely close in the 22nd minute. The remainder of the half was relatively bland. Neither was team able to create promising opportunities as lack of tact on the final ball and a thrashing battle in the midfield resulted in only two shots for both teams.
The story of the second half would start very, very different. Canada generated a couple of opportunities, including a set piece, but not doing much with them. Then on the counter, 55 minutes in, a beautiful curving pass into the middle of the pitch from Kosovare Asllani sent Stina Blackstenius colliding into Canadian keeper Stephanie Labbé, but she was able to get the ball past her and into the back of the net, sending Sweden up 1-0. Not 12 minutes later, Canada would get their chance to level. Utah Royal Desiree Scott took a shot at net, but the ball went straight into the arm of Asllani. VAR would confirm, and Canada went to the spot, but 36-year-old Hedvig Lindahl, in her 5th World Cup, would come up huge blocking the shot from Janine Beckie, and a question remained, why didn’t Christine Sinclair take the kick? Near the 80th minute, a dangerous attack from Sweden sent the ball in and Ashley Lawrence, trying to get the ball away, sent Fridolina Rolfö down in the box marking a penalty kick which would have likely been the dagger for Canada, although the kick was never converted. In fact, it was never taken as Sweden was offsides by just an inch. Canada avoided death again in the 86th minute. With a wide open side of goal, with cat-like reflexes, Desiree Scott stuck her foot up and deflected the shot, keeping Canada alive with a chance. Putting bodies forward, Canada got on the attack in the dying minutes, getting a couple of shots, but much like their quarterfinal aspirations, were a little too high, and a little too wide.
Italy is perhaps the most surprising team of the tournament. And not just surprising, they have been dynamic and exciting, scoring seven goals in the group stage in wins against Australia and Jamaica. China came in as the third place team out of Group B. Strong defensively, they conceded only one goal, largely held together by the formidable goalkeeper Peng Shimeng, and also troubled in the attack, also only scoring a single goal.
The ball would enter the back of the net for the first time around the 10th minute as Valentina Giacinti slid behind the defense, but for the fourth time in the tournament, Italy would get a goal called back for being offsides. But as the saying goes, lightning always strikes twice, and just a few minutes later, in the 15th minute. Giacinti would steal the ball on the far flank and make a run down the Chinese side of the field, sending the ball in, and with a few bobbles, Giacinti found the ball back at her feet and blew it into the net. China managed to get their first real opportunity off their first set piece of the game in the 19th minute, but it was ultimately wasted, and Italian dominance continued in the attack and possession. In the 26th minute, Italian Sara Gama made an incredibly dangerous play with a high boot trying to get a clearance, but it was deemed a legitimate attempt at the ball and nothing came of it. A minute and a half later, Yan Wang put a rocket of a goal on frame, but it was just tipped over the crossbar. The 31st minute would see Giacinti breaking free through the backline, much like she did before, creating a one-on-one opportunity with the keeper, but she put the shot just off goal. In the 33rd minute, Italy had another breakaway but Peng Shimeng came up huge. The 42nd minute brought an incredibly promising attack for China off a free kick, but the ball went off the far post and bounced back across for an opportunity, but it was ruled offsides. Wang Shuang had another chance in the box a few minutes later, but the chance was eliminated.
Italy would need only four minutes after halftime to get their second goal of the game. Aurora Galli would rocket from distance off the high press, and after a bounce, it would roll into the corner away from Shimeng’s reach. The next portion of play was definitely back and forth, but with Italy on the front foot in the 61st minute, China made a double substitution, bringing in Song Duan and Yao Wei to try to give themselves more of an attacking chance. The moves would pan out, at least to an extent, and China would possess the ball more in the attacking portion of the field, generating five shots in a matter of minutes, but the chances just weren’t good enough. Attack after attack, wayward ball after wayward ball, one too many touches, Italy nearly got a third in the 91st minute, but the contact wasn’t near good enough. Ultimately, it matters little if teams generate fourteen shots in the second half, and all that matters is converting them. For the first time ever, the Steel Roses of China would not advance past the Round of 16, while on the opposite hand Italy advanced to the quarterfinals for the first time since 1991.
Netherlands v. Japan (2-1)
A Round of 16 match replicating a Round of 16 outing in 2015 where Japan knocked out Holland 2-1. Both teams played below their potential in the group stage. While they made it all the way to the finals losing to the United States last time, and winning the tournament in 2011, Japan had disappointed in the group stage only getting four points after leaving many veterans home and going into the tournament much younger. For Holland, the reigning European champions, nine points in three games is great, but the offense has not been clicking consistently at its full potential, and when it does it’s happening late in games. A quick start would do the Netherlands a world of good if they are going to make a deep run in the tournament.
A quick start would come, Vivianne Midema had the first shot of the game in the 5th minute but didn’t get great contact on it, but regardless, it tricked out for a corner kick. While that didn’t pan out, the Dutch kept pressure and another corner in the 17th minute would get the ball in the back of the net after a clever Lieke Martens backheel. Japan would get their first major chance in the 20th minute but would be denied by the post. That would be one of several opportunities Japan would get over the next 20 minutes, and in the 43rd, they would level. It started with Mana Iwabuchi pulling off a move to earn herself a little space followed by a beautiful pass to Yui Hasegawa who slid it into the back of the net for a gorgeous goal to level. Midema would counter right back with some great footwork in the box and a shot, but Ayaka Yamashita would make excellent work of it.
Oranje came out of the break clearly upset about conceding so close to half and possessing plenty in the Japanese half, but not with extreme amounts of purpose. Japan had a great look in the 64th minute, but excellent work from Van Veenendaal kept it out. Japan would get another incredibly creative opportunity in the 71st minute as a quick heel flick backwards set up a shot that went wide by inches. In 75th minute, Japan would find themselves on a breakaway, and the ball only barely stolen out of bounds before the run would be called back for an offsides, their first of the tournament. A minute later, Japan would get another opportunity, but they would send the ball into the side netting. Not four minutes later, Japan would send another rocket into the crossbar, barely missing and forcing Van Veenendaal to come up big again. It was a pure onslaught at this point, and it felt like the Dutch would need a goal to send it to extra time despite the scoreline being 1-1. Netherlands, would encounter the ultimate form of luck in the 91st minute as a shot would hit Saki Kumagai for a handling call, and Lieke Martens would convert her second of the game to go ahead with mere minutes remaining.