SportsPulse: The USWNT coasted through the group stage but the knockout stage is a whole different beast. Win or go home. First up: Spain.
REIMS, France — It’s only arrogant if you can’t back it up.
In what might be the surest sign of the growth of the game, there has been no shortage of trash talking and pot stirring directed at the U.S. women from their opponents and the media covering them. Words are parsed for disrespect. Potential slights are relayed. Dismissiveness is seen where it probably doesn’t exist.
The latest uproar centered around Ali Krieger’s statement Saturday that she thinks this is the best team the U.S. has had. Now, whether Krieger was referring to the history of the program or the teams she’s seen and been a part of during her time on the national team is not certain.
That didn’t matter to journalists from Spain, the Americans’ opponent Monday in the round of 16, who asked the Spanish players about it.
“Who is Ali Krieger?” midfielder Virginia Torrecilla shot back.
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U.S. defender Ali Krieger looks to pass against Chile during group F play at Parc des Princes. (Photo: Michael Chow, USA TODAY Sports)
On Sunday afternoon, U.S. coach Jill Ellis was asked what she thought about Krieger’s claim and whether she had any concern that that, along with other statements of confidence by her players, would be taken by opposing teams as a sign of arrogance.
Sweden goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl, for example, said she’d heard the Americans talking about playing seven games, the number it will take to get to the July 7 finale, and took it as a sign the U.S. was overlooking the final group game against Sweden.
But Ellis wasn’t having it. Any of it.
First, she defended Krieger’s right to say what she did, pointing to her longevity with the U.S. team. Krieger is at her third World Cup, and she was a starter on the U.S. team that won the title in 2015.
Ellis then went on to echo what might as well be the team’s mantra here in France: It’s not you, it’s me.
For weeks now, the Americans have been saying that their only focus, their only concern, is themselves. That’s not meant to be dismissive, and the U.S. women have gone out of their way to not say anything that could be taken as such. But they believe if they’re at the top of their game, which they think they are, they’ll dictate their fate.
“I think that’s an internal feeling, so I don’t think it’s a message to anybody else. The players feel good about this team and about each other and I think where we are in terms of tactically, where our evolution is, where our level of play is,” Ellis said.
“I will say this: There’s confidence, but I think this team knows that everything is earned, nothing is given,” Ellis added. “I like that comment because it speaks about the confidence a player has in the players around them and about the team. I don’t think it’s a comment other than speaking about ourselves, and I think it’s great.”
And why shouldn’t the Americans be confident? They’re the only team to win three World Cup titles, and they rolled through the group stage with a record 18 goals and three shutouts. If they weren’t confident, they’d have no business being here.
But the saltiness of the other teams, and the presence of media here to provoke it is good, too, a reflection of how much better the women’s game has gotten.
A few years ago, Lindahl and her teammates likely would have expressed deference to the U.S. women or, at the very least, been noncommittal. But Sweden now sees itself as being on equal footing – or close to it — with the Americans, having dumped them out of the Rio Olympics in the quarterfinals, the earliest exit the U.S. has made at a major international tournament.
When Spain made its World Cup debut four years ago, it was thrilled just to be here, recognizing that its program was so far behind that it had no hope of going toe-to-toe with the powerhouses. Since then, La Liga has taken over the women’s domestic league, which has, in turn, helped accelerate the progress of the national teams.
The Under-17 team won its World Cup in 2018 while the U-20 team reached the final. The senior team went 8-0 in World Cup qualifying, scoring 25 goals while conceding only two.
Spain recognizes it’s the underdog in Monday’s game, but it is neither wide-eyed nor daunted. A 1-0 loss to the U.S. in January, the only other game the teams have played, showed that it can hold its own against the best.
“When the girls look at the players in front of them, they’re not going to see stars. They’re going to see a team like any other,” Spain coach Jorge Vilda said. “They are a good team, but we are also a team that has been known to be up to scratch.”
England, France, Canada – all have said things in recent months that make it clear they no longer consider the Americans to be invincible.
Whether they are or not will be decided in the next two weeks. That it’s a point of contention might be the best thing going at this World Cup.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour @nrarmour.