The United States Women’s National Team survived an elimination scare Tuesday, grinding through a painful, wasteful 0–0 draw against Portugal to stumble backward into the knockout rounds of the 2023 World Cup.
The early morning began with the U.S. hoping to outrace the Netherlands to first place in Group E by scoring enough goals to take the tiebreaker. It ended with a giant American sigh of relief as Portugal hit the post in stoppage time to keep the game scoreless and the U.S. in position to advance as the second-place team. Life comes at you fast.
From the kickoff, at 3 a.m. Eastern time, the USWNT played in a manner befitting their fanbase, looking like a group of players that had been roused from their beds five minutes before game time and told they had to compete in an international soccer match. Plan A was to play it long before Portugal could get set in its rest defense. Plan B was for Sophia Smith to run past three people. Neither was executed well.
As it showed against Vietnam and even the Netherlands, this version of the U.S. is a ball progression machine, working the ball into its attacking third with adroitness. However, once it’s there, it has no idea what to do with the thing, leaving its wingers stranded on separate islands without a plan to punish the opponent’s help defenders sent after them. Portugal swarmed the ball, trying to cut the field in half and keep the U.S. pinned to the sideline whenever the Americans took possession out wide. In the early goings, the U.S. had some success breaking out and creating danger by switching the field. As the first half wore on, the team created fewer and fewer of these opportunities, the defense sniffing them out even before they materialized. Portugal had the manual for how to stymie this particular version of the U.S. It was more of a one-pager than a weighty tome.
For the second straight game, U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski demonstrated that he has zero ideas for how to juice his team’s offense. The one substitution he made prior to the 84th minute, bringing on Megan Rapinoe for Smith, did little to change how the Americans were playing. Rapinoe, presumably brought on for her playmaking and set piece delivery, created a pair of half-chances for forward Alex Morgan but mostly took up residency on the same island Smith did, completing fewer than a third of her passes due to lack of options and some simple misfires from the usually clutch player. Smith, who started the tournament so brightly, struggled again in the face of double and triple teams being sent her way. Morgan tried to put the team on her back late but ended up snatching at chances when early shots might not have been the move. Nobody did anything to upset Lindsey Horan.
Meanwhile, in the other game, the Americans’ rivals for the top spot scored three goals against Vietnam in fewer than 20 minutes, overturning the USWNT’s goal differential advantage in so little time that we still thought then the U.S. might have a chance to make it a race. Was the Netherlands perhaps fortunate to get a version of Vietnam that was tired and had nothing left to play for? Sure, but the U.S. knew the schedule ahead of time. At a certain point you have to leave no doubt. This U.S. team has not been able to create that separation no matter who they were playing.
The USWNT was overrun in midfield, its wingers and fullbacks not providing enough help even as Portugal passed the ball around and through with too much ease. This was the mistake that nearly cost the U.S. the match in the end. Had substitute Ana Capeta’s shot bounced off the post and in rather than out, you could have pointed to the moment just before as a fatal sign. A depleted Rose Lavelle—who wasn’t even fit to start earlier in the tournament—could do little more than swipe exhaustedly at some Portuguese midfielders as they ran past her, 92 minutes into the game. At that point in the match, somehow the U.S. still had two subs to use. Somehow neither of the substitutions Andonovski eventually made, with just two minutes remaining in the match, was an actual midfielder.
What saved the U.S., other than the post, was Portugal’s inexperience. Bringing the ball forward, the World Cup debutants played with the characteristic patterns of a team still finding its footing: the work of two or three really nice plays undone by one sloppy one. A bit more luck, a bit more composure close to goal, a bit more experience on the biggest stage, and the Portuguese could easily have sent the U.S. home. Next time, they’ll have at least one of those in their favor.
Andonovski and his players were dismissive of criticism after the draw against the Netherlands. “When was the last time anybody wrote a headline that was like: ‘They played the best game and that’s exactly what we were expecting them to?’ ” Rapinoe noted between the games. A veteran of four World Cups now, Rapinoe would know, since it is far from the first time the U.S. has started one of these tournaments slower than its fanbase would like. The U.S. finished second in its group in 2011, where it would go on to lose to Japan in the final on penalties, i.e., come as close as you can to winning the tournament without actually doing so. It was unconvincing at the outset in 2015, scoring just once in its final two group-stage games; then Carli Lloyd decided she was going to win the World Cup single-handedly and proceeded to do just that.
But Lloyd only became an unstoppable meteor after coach Jill Ellis tweaked the lineup to allow her more freedom, asking Lauren Holiday to play more defensively and finally replacing legendary forward Abby Wambach with midfielder Morgan Gautrat so Lloyd could focus on attacking. Sometimes these things don’t just work themselves out given enough time. Sometimes change is necessary, whether it’s a different shape in a midfield or the replacement in the lineup of someone previously undroppable. Andonovski, who has largely stuck with his favored system throughout player injuries and occasional rough patches, seems unlikely to swing so big. It’s easy to read the strange lack of substitutions at the end of the Netherlands draw—he used just one of his five available subs, and that one at halftime—as a lack of ideas other than trusting the talent to win out. By now, no advanced statistics can hide the fact that his coaching is costing this team, that his players have become less than the sum of their parts.
Now the U.S. is going to have to do things the hard way. By finishing second in its group, the USWNT is almost certainly destined to play Group G leaders Sweden, who embarrassed the U.S. at the Olympics two years ago, in the next round. Win that game—and we now are definitely getting too far ahead of ourselves based on the available evidence—and you face a potential quarterfinal matchup with Japan, only the single most impressive team in the tournament so far, and which somehow scored 11 goals in the group stage despite some statistically poor finishing. Win the group, even unconvincingly, and you might buy yourself another Round of 16 opponent where you only have to be good enough. To beat Sweden, the U.S. will have to find what its best looks like sooner rather than later, and it will have to do so without Lavelle, who watched her team chase enough shadows through midfield to draw two group-stage yellow cards, earning her a suspension from the Round of 16.
Most annoying, for U.S. fans and broadcasters, is that by finishing second in the group, the U.S. has lost its inside lane on the 10 p.m. and 9 p.m. kickoffs earmarked for it through the next two rounds. Hope you didn’t smash your alarm clock to bits this morning, though actually you might wish you had. Right now, this team isn’t very much fun to wake up for.