Well, the U.S. women’s national team is in the knockout round of the 2023 Women’s World Cup after their match in Auckland, New Zealand in front of an electric crowd of nearly 43,000 fans.
While there should be cheering from the rooftops, no one is really happy or thrilled about how it went down.
After a lackluster performance with a 1-1 draw against the Netherlands, many hoped that against Portugal it would be a stronger statement win.
They were lucky to escape with one point into the Round of 16 with a 0-0 draw. They’ve beaten Portugal in each of their previous 10 meetings. Yet there was plenty to be concerned about as it looked like the USWNT is going to have an uphill battle to the three-peat.
The Starting XI
Head coach Vlatko Andonovski made some changes to the starting XI after running the same two rosters in the win over Vietnam and the draw against the Netherlands. He ran another 4-3-3 with these as the Starting XI: Naeher, Girma, Williams, Ertz, Horan, Smith, Morgan, Lavelle, Sullivan, Dunn, and Fox.
The addition of Lynn Williams and Rose Lavelle was ideally going to provide some much-needed veteran legs against the Portuguese. It was Lavelle’s first start at the World Cup after an April knee injury. For Williams, she was the only attacker on the team without any minutes in the tournament. The absence of her as a potential late sub against the Netherlands was a real head-scratcher when they needed some spark.
Small improvements in the attack
Well, if there’s a silver lining to be had in this game, it’s that the attack from the USWNT was marginally better than against the Dutch. They were able to create chances, which is great. They couldn’t manage to capitalize on them.
Adding Williams and Lavelle was supposed to help that but it was a mixed bag. Lavelle created three chances but was struggling with her passing percentage hovering around 57 percent. She also earned herself a yellow card in the 39th minute and now the USWNT is without her for their first knockout-round game against Sweden.
However, Williams did what she was brought on to do. She was four of the USWNT’s six shots on goal, the shiny part of a dull game. The USWNT had 17 total shots, just one less than their 18 from the game against the Dutch. There was no Williams in that one…maybe there should’ve been.
One of the better goal-scoring chances in the game came in the 53rd minute when Lindsey Horan was on the counterattack. Alex Morgan was in front and while she tried to net it, it was knocked away.
Thirty minutes later, Morgan tried again. She tried to use the advantage and make the cross but her attempt was blocked. Portugal’s keeper Ines Pereira denied her the U.S.’s opening goal. Morgan was key in trying to maintain possession and generate chances for her teammates.
Survive and advance might be the motto going through the minds of the USWNT but that doesn’t a three-peat make.
USWNT vulnerability was on display
The U.S. had very similar- and not in a good way- performances against the Portuguese and the Dutch. In both instances, the team they were supposed to handily beat instead dominated them on the pitch. Both controlled possession and there was no way that the U.S. could control their midfield that way.
Looking at the three ladies, Lavelle, Horan, and Andi Sullivan never really got into a rhythm during the entire match. When they were unable to jell, there was little consistency in their attack. Compare that to Portugal and the USWNT looked confused and outplayed.
Both teams in the group stage saw not enough quality from the USWNT front six to be consistently dangerous. Second-half substitute Megan Rapinoe remarked to Fox Sports that the midfield issues plus a lack of patience from her fellow players were on display:
“I think in the first half, there was a lot of space for us to play into and just a little bit rushed. I think we could’ve switched the point of attack a little bit more. I thought we were finding the width but I think we needed to open them up a little bit more and draw them out.”– Megan Rapinoe, 8/1/23
And the U.S. almost found themselves out of the tournament in extra time. Portugal- more successful on the attack- saw left forward Ana Capeta make an attempt. She’d come into the match as a substitute one minute earlier into stoppage time and made a breakaway against Alyssa Naeher. She fired it and boy, it was almost lights out for the U.S.
If it feels like deja vu, it is
Now, this wasn’t the first time the USWNT limped into the knockout round. But each time they’ve been able to pull out a last-minute miracle to make things happen.
They did it in 2015 before they hit their stride in the semifinals off the back of Carli Lloyd. The current U.S. team made less-than-ideal history in this tournament. They failed to win two games in the group stage. Go back to 2011 and this similar type of play was there too.
Before they even made it to the World Cup, the U.S. was forced into a playoff home-and-away series against Italy to qualify. Luckily, they won both but it was ugly. That World Cup they also finished second in their group- behind their now opponent Sweden.
The eye test of this 2023 team post-group stage is concerning. On one hand, there might be a moment like in 2015 (finding the right spot for Julie Ertz might help). On the other, Sweden could see the lack of attack in their last two group-stage games and exploit it to high heaven.
Survive and advance right?
What’s next for the USWNT?
The Americans advance to the knockout stage with their 0-0 draw vs. Portugal, which means they’ll take the second seed out of Group E. The next opponent is one that they’ve struggled against in the past- a likely opponent in Sweden.
That kickoff will be at 5 a.m. ET on Sunday, Aug. 6 in Melbourne, Australia. Get the coffee ready in the U.S. and some other beverages in the rest of the world.
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Mandatory Credit: AP Photo/Andrew Cornaga & AP Photo/Abbie Parr