By ANNE M. PETERSON
The Associated Press
REIMS, France — Spain coach Jorge Vilda says part of the challenge in facing the United States is making sure his players aren’t intimidated by the defending Women’s World Cup champions.
Spain faces the top-ranked U.S. team today in Reims, marking the first time La Roja will appear in the knockout round at the World Cup.
“We need to insure that it doesn’t get in our head. We’ve had the right level of competition, and we hope that tomorrow that we can put our best foot forward,” Vilda said Sunday through a translator. “When the girls look at the players in front of them they are not going to see stars, they are going to see a team like any other. They are a good team, but we are also a team that has been known to be up to scratch and shown what we can do on the pitch.”
It’s going to be hard not to see those stars when facing a front line that includes Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath.
The United States skated through its group with a stage record 18 goals. And the team didn’t concede a goal in the group for the first time at a World Cup.
The three-time World Cup winners are brimming with confidence.
“I think this is the best team we’ve had,” Ali Krieger said. “We’re so confident right now. We’re so motivated to want to win and succeed.”
The two teams met in January in Alicante, part of a European trip for the United States. Christen Press scored the lone goal in a 1-0 victory and the Americans rebounded from a 3-1 loss to France in Le Havre a few days before.
The match may have been a confidence boost for No. 13 Spain, because it was able to hang with the world’s top-ranked team.
Coach Jill Ellis said she believed that friendly was critical to the Americans’ preparation, but both teams have since evolved.
“I actually pushed for that game because I think it was important for us. You have to take the approach that if it’s a method where you’re learning, you’re growing and you’re getting better, you can’t worry about what your opponent takes away from a game,” she said.
Ellis said Julie Ertz and Morgan were “fine” but didn’t elaborate. Ertz missed the team’s final group-stage match, a 2-0 victory over Sweden, because of a hip contusion. Morgan did not play in the second half because of a couple of hard collisions in the first.
Spain, playing in its second World Cup but making its first appearance in the knockout round, finished second to Germany in its group to draw the United States.
Spain has been on the rise since Vilda took over following the 2015 World Cup. The team won the 2017 Algarve Cup and last year won the Cyprus Cup, while also finishing in the final eight of the UEFA Women’s Euro.
Defender Irene Paredes was asked if Spain’s players believe they have a chance.
“That’s pretty basic,” she said. “That’s the first thing you have to achieve, that we ourselves think that we can win, right?”
The winner Monday will play fourth-ranked France, which defeated Brazil 2-1 on Sunday.
∫ CANADA-SWEDEN: Canada heads into its knockout round match against Sweden in Paris with captain Christine Sinclair sitting at 182 career goals, just two away from matching the international record set by former U.S. forward Abby Wambach.
Sinclair is the second player to score in five straight World Cups, joining Brazil’s Marta.
Eight of Sinclair’s goals have come against Sweden.
“They’re a team that always shows up in the big tournaments,” she told reporters following training. “Obviously they won the silver medal in the last Olympics. They’re a world-class team, very well-organized with some great players. It’s going to be a great game.”
Fifth-ranked Canada has bronze medals in the last two Olympics, but fell to England in the quarterfinals at the 2015 World Cup on home soil. The Canadians are 4-3-3 in their last 10 matches against Sweden, with the most recent meeting at the Algarve Cup, when Canada prevailed on penalties after a scoreless draw.
Ninth-ranked Sweden made seven lineup changes in its 2-0 loss to the United States in its final group game, aiming to rest players for Canada.
“My message is relatively simple tomorrow,” captain Caroline Seger said. “It’s about winning or going home. We’ll have to get out there and play at 100 percent with no regrets when we leave the pitch.”
The winner will face No. 2 Germany in a quarterfinal match Saturday in Rennes.