AUCKLAND, New Zealand — It was nervy. At times, it was panic-inducing and alarming. But the U.S. women’s national team is on to the Round of 16 here at the 2023 World Cup — barely, by the margin of a goalpost.
The Americans were uninspiring and anxious over 90 minutes against Portugal on Tuesday. They arrived at Eden Park atop Group E; they entered the final 30 minutes clinging to second place. In stoppage time, Portuguese striker Ana Capeta waltzed through the U.S. defense, and beat goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher.
But her low shot struck the post and caromed off to safety.
The U.S. held on for a 0-0 draw, which secured its progression to the knockout stages.
The Netherlands, meanwhile, walloped Vietnam, 7-0, relegating the U.S. to runner-up status, and likely to a difficult matchup Sunday (5 a.m. ET, Fox) against Sweden.
Much like five days earlier, the U.S. began on the front foot, then faded with shocking ease. It created a smattering of chances. But its first-half performance, on the whole, triggered a smattering of boos from the 42,958 fans in attendance. It was sloppy and slow, ordinary and unimaginative. Portugal was the team that possessed the ball more, and completed 218 passes to the USWNT’s 164. Jessica Silva was the player who drew oohs and ahs from the crowd, and ran into acres of space for the cleanest chance of the half, in the 16th minute.
Portugal, the No. 21 team in the world, played with confidence and flair.
The U.S., supposedly No. 1, played with hesitance.
Its press was inconsistent and disjointed. Its midfield, at times, seemed invisible. Nobody seemed to want the ball. And those that had it struggled to connect simple 1-2s, or sent uncontested passes out of bounds.
Alex Morgan and Sophia Smith set up Lynn Williams, who started ahead of Trinity Rodman, for the two best American chances of the first half, but one Williams header was weak, and her poked half-volley sailed over the crossbar.
The half then went from bad to worse when Rose Lavelle slid into a clumsy tackle, and picked up a yellow card. She’ll be suspended for the Round of 16.
Around the start of the second half, fire alarms began screeching inside Eden Park. They were false alarms, but frighteningly poetic.
U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski pulled Sophia Smith after 60 minutes, and inserted Megan Rapinoe in an attempt to inject life into the game. The Americans improved slightly after the break, and largely snuffed out Portuguese attacks. In the end, that’s all they had to do. But their performance still left plenty to be desired.
Their group stage had already been full of hand-wringing. Their 3-0 win over Vietnam was accompanied by frustration. In their 1-1 draw with the Netherlands, they admittedly “weren’t in sync.” Ahead of Tuesday’s decider, they were feeling “a little bit of anxiousness,” Megan Rapinoe acknowledged.
She claimed it was nothing new; that “we go into these moments like, ‘Hell yeah, this is exactly where we wanna be.’”
But those first two games, both sufficient yet unsatisfactory, proved costly. They didn’t eliminate the U.S. They did, however, leave the U.S. trailing the Netherlands on goal differential, and destined for a more difficult Round of 16 matchup with Sweden.
They were also a sign of more alarming things to come.
The players have claimed that they were not worried. “We knew we were gonna have to build into the tournament,” Rapinoe said Sunday. They still have every opportunity to do that, four games to win, four do-or-die occasions.
It’s just that the first will likely be against the Swedes, who beat the U.S. 3-0 in their last meeting at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
And the USWNT will have to be much, much better than they were Tuesday night.
That Round of 16 game will be Sunday in Melbourne. A win would earn the Americans a quarterfinal date with either Norway or Japan next Friday, Aug. 11 (Wednesday, 3:30 a.m. ET, Fox), in Auckland. There is still every expectation that the U.S. will indeed get there and beyond.
But it’s increasingly clear that the gap has closed; that the USWNT are one of eight or nine contenders, rather than a one of one favorite.