The USWNT Heads Into World Cup Knockout Round Facing Rare Adversity

by Chrös McDougall

Kelley O'Hara applauds fans after the USWNT's Group Stage game against Portugal on Aug. 1, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Getty Images)

The U.S. hasn’t always been a power in women’s soccer. Through the program’s first five games, from 1985 and into 1986, the team scored a grand total of three goals while recording four losses and a tie.

Then the “Triple-Edged Sword” emerged. That high-pressing forward line of Michelle Akers, April Heinrichs and Carin Jennings turned the team now known as the USWNT into a force, and at the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991 in China they overwhelmed opponents on the way to becoming the sport’s first true world champions.

Moments of adversity at the World Cup have been rare for the Americans in the 32 years since.

In 1995, the U.S. fell to Norway in the semifinals. Following another semifinal exit in 2003, the USWNT experienced perhaps its lowest World Cup moment in 2007, when Marta and Brazil had their way in a lopsided 4-0 win. Then, four years after that, the Americans averted disaster twice. After surviving an all-or-nothing playoff just to qualify for the 2011 tournament, they needed the latest goal in World Cup history to avoid a shock loss to Brazil in the quarterfinals.

Outside of that, though? The World Cup has been pretty good to the Americans. They’ve won the tournament four times — twice as many as the next best team, Germany. All three of those semifinal losses ended with the U.S. coming back to win the third-place game. And the only other tournament the USWNT failed to win? That 2011 U.S. team finished as runner-up.

This is all to say that the position the USWNT found itself in on Tuesday, at the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, was unfamiliar. To say the least.

Facing an elimination game in the group stage for the first time since 2007, the top-ranked U.S. team was about two inches and seven minutes away from just that.

In the first minute of stoppage time, Portugal’s Ana Capeta broke through the U.S. back line and drilled a low shot past the outstretched arms of goalie Alyssa Naeher. A goal would have likely ended the U.S. tournament. Instead, the ball bonked squarely off the post and back into space, allowing the Americans to hold on for a 0-0 draw in Auckland, New Zealand, and move on to the round of 16 as the runner-up in Group E.

“'We’re not happy with the performance we put out there,” veteran U.S. forward and co-captain Alex Morgan said afterward. “But at the same time, we’re moving on.”

The U.S. will face the winner of Group G — expected to be Sweden — at 5 a.m. ET on Sunday in Melbourne, Australia.

(R) Alex Morgan shoots at goal while Portugal's Ana Borges attempts to block during the FIFA Women's World Cup on Aug. 1, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Getty Images)

Coming into the World Cup as the two-time defending champion, the U.S. was seen as a favorite again.

Even without the recently retired Carli Lloyd and injured center back Becky Sauerbrunn, the U.S. team is loaded with talent, especially on the forward line. The veteran Morgan, 34, leads a new “Three-Edged Sword” alongside World Cup debutants Sophia Smith, 22, and Trinity Rodman, 21, with the 38-year-old Megan Rapinoe, the reigning World Cup Golden Ball and Golden Boot winner, coming off the bench.

However, the U.S. has also faced some challenges in recent years, including an uneven performance at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 — which still ended with a bronze medal — and a three-game losing streak in 2022. The last time that had happened was in 1993.

Both the talent, and the struggles, have shown so far in this World Cup.

Opening the tournament on July 22 against Vietnam, Smith scored a pair of first-half goals, and co-captain Lindsey Horan added another in the second half, to secure an easy win over the world’s 32nd ranked team in Auckland.

The second game, against the Netherlands in a rematch of the 2019 final, proved more difficult. The Dutch, ranked No. 9 and missing star forward Vivianne Miedema, nonetheless looked like contenders again in the July 27 game in Wellington, New Zealand.

Following a chippy start, Jill Roord put the Netherlands up 1-0 with a long-range strike in the 17th minute. It took a hard hit on Horan from her club teammate, Danielle van de Donk, to get the U.S. back into the game. Horan, still fuming after the second-half confrontation, responded by heading in Rose Lavelle’s corner kick just moments later. The U.S. then held on to draw 1-1.

That result sent the U.S. and the Netherlands into Tuesday’s Group E finales even on points, though with the U.S. in first place due to goal differential. But with the Netherlands wrapping up against already eliminated Vietnam, the U.S. was likely needing a multi-goal win over Portugal to maintain that top position. The games were played simultaneously.

The Dutch did their job, scoring four goals in the first 23 minutes en route to a 7-0 win. Things didn’t go so smoothly for the Americans. Portugal, playing in its first Women’s World Cup and able to advance with a win, locked the USWNT up from the start.

Unable to hold possession and generate quality chances, the U.S. gradually went from hoping to win the group to just trying to stay alive in the tournament. With help from the goal post, the USWNT did just enough to survive.

(R) Rose Lavelle controls the ball against Portugal's Dolores Silva during the FIFA Women's World Cup on Aug. 1, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Getty Images)

A major challenge awaits in the knockout round.

First, the USWNT needs to rediscover its identity. The U.S.’ five points in the group stage were its fewest in nine World Cup appearances, and its four goals matched the 2015 team for the fewest scored during a group stage.

Then the Americans have to get through what’s now looking like a treacherous path back to the final. After failing to win their group for only the second time, the USWNT likely faces longtime nemesis Sweden in the round of 16. It’s often been a tricky match-up for the Americans. Two years ago the Swedes thrashed the U.S. 3-0 in the opening game of the Tokyo Olympics, and the world’s third-ranked team has looked strong so far in this tournament, outscoring its first two opponents 7-1 in a pair of wins. Sweden wraps up group play against Argentina on Wednesday.

Adding another wrinkle, the U.S. will have to play its first knockout game without midfielder Lavelle, who picked up her second yellow card of the group stage on Tuesday and will have to sit out. The key veteran playmaker, who was limited to a substitute role in the first two games, started for the first time against Portugal.

It’s an unfamiliar position for the U.S. But it’s also one the team has historically thrived in.

In eight previous World Cups, the closest the USWNT has come to an early elimination was in the 2011 quarterfinals. After giving up a one-goal lead to Brazil in regulation, the U.S. quickly went down 2-1 in extra time. With just seconds remaining, Rapinoe’s desperation cross found Abby Wambach at the far side of the goal. Her 122nd-minute header tied the game, and the U.S. won in a shootout.

Morgan witnessed that play from just a few feet away, having entered the game as a substitute in her first World Cup. She’s since played in countless big games for the USWNT, winning an Olympic gold medal plus a pair of World Cups.

“I know this team and I know what we’re capable of,” Morgan said on Tuesday. “Just because it hasn’t clicked every moment on the field and we’re not putting goals in the back of the net doesn’t mean that these aren’t the right players for the job. The confidence is there, now we just have to prove it out on the field.”

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