It would be a big mistake for the U.S. to overlook a Spanish team on the rise

REIMS, France -- It is a country with a passion for soccer, a history of success in the men's game and globally revered club teams that are finally investing resources in the women's game. It is a country with one of the largest populations in Europe and an ample potential talent pool.

And it is a country that now stands in the way of American hegemony in the sport and American success in this Women's World Cup.

But we're not talking France, not yet anyway. On Monday (6 p.m. local, noon ET), the U.S. takes on Spain in the round of 16.

For all the anticipation surrounding a potential Paris quarterfinal between France and the United States, the two pre-tournament favorites, both drew difficult opponents in the opening knockout round. In France's case, the team had to hold off Marta and her Brazilian team that never received the consistent support it needed to turn potential into a permanent place atop the sport.

In present form, Spain is an unfinished product. Ranked 13th in the world, the Spanish finished second behind Germany in Group B. They had at least 59 percent of possession in each of their three group games, including during a narrow loss to Germany, and completed 813 more passes than their opponents. But for all that time with the ball, they scored just three goals.

It was much the same story when the U.S. beat Spain 1-0 in January, their only prior meeting. The Americans earned the win, but they didn't break Spain's will.

Ali Krieger wasn't part of that January trip, but the American defender who has more playing experience in Europe than most knows what to expect.

"Incredible team, very crafty, very technical, very smart on the ball and intelligent in their decision-making," Krieger said Saturday. "Their whole team, they play with such confidence on the ball."

Spain plays like a team with a plan. And its team is very much is the product of a developmental plan that has mirrored the rapid cultural shift in a country where someone as young as Utah Royals star Vero Boquete, 32, still perhaps the most famous Spanish player despite not being in the World Cup squad, tells stories of growing up hearing adults telling her soccer wasn't for girls. The gender divide isn't ancient history.

Tuesday's game in Reims marks Spain's first game in the knockout round of the World Cup, which isn't all that surprising considering it qualified for the tournament for the first time in 2015. That trip to Canada, which ended in disappointment, recriminations and players successfully calling for the end of longtime coach Ignacio Quereda's reign, was its only appearance in a major global tournament before this year.

Put another way, after beating South Africa, drawing China and narrowly losing to Germany in group play, Spain even now has the same number of all-time World Cup and Olympic wins as Thailand.

But if Spain is the iceberg that could sink the seemingly unsinkable U.S. juggernaut, the bulk of evidence for Spanish progress in women's soccer is fittingly found beneath the surface.

Before 2016, Spain qualified for just one U20 World Cup, the signature international youth tournament held every two years (contested as an under-19 event until 2006). It then reached the quarterfinals in 2016 and finished second in 2018, eliminating the U.S. in the group stage.

In the past three U17 World Cups, it finished second, came in third and then won the most recent event.

Spain won the two most recent UEFA U19 championships and has reached the final of that annual European competition in six of seven tournaments since 2012.

The U.S. has the oldest team in this tournament. Spain has just one player who is even 30 years old, midfielder Silvia Meseguer Bellido, who celebrated that milestone birthday in March.

Celia Jimenez Delgado is among the more familiar Spanish players to many American fans, thanks to her time at the University of Alabama and now with the NWSL's Reign FC (she's the only American-based player on a roster full of Barcelona and Atletico Madrid players). But before coming to the U.S., she was part of the new wave of women's soccer in Spain.

"Since we have such a soccer culture, and we see how the guys are professional, full-time athletes, we always thought that could be a reality," Jimenez Delgado said shortly before this tournament. "We hoped that one day it would be the same for us. I also think we really invested time and energy into changing that reality, and today it's whole different story."

Spain is following the same path France already traveled, opening a game already part of the national consciousness to the full breadth of the population. Italy's success in this World Cup, on the heels of improvements in Serie A, is similar. And even if progress in places like Africa and South America remains imperative, the growth of the game in places such as southern Europe is a start.

"I think these are examples that FIFA and federations need to look at," Kelley O'Hara said when asked about Spain. "To see that if you do invest the time, you do invest the money, you will get results."

Spain is far from a finished product in that regard, still relatively early in a generation of change. But even as currently constituted, it presents a greater knockout-round challenge than the U.S. faced in the same round four years ago against a Colombia side ranked 28th in the world and with only some players fully professional.

The U.S. also enters this game with three days' fewer rest than Spain, which completed group play on June 17, a perk perhaps all the more valuable with forecasted highs in the 90s in Reims.

"I say bring it on," Krieger said. "We're here to win, and I'd rather play the best teams possible, just so that it's more enjoyable for us to lift the trophy in the end. You come here to play the best teams, to be the best, because if we didn't, people would have to say, 'Oh, they only played so-and-so ... and this was the easy route for them.'

"No, I want to play every team that is ranked [highest] in this tournament."

All the same, in the case of Spain, it might be a case of better to play it in 2019 than 2023.