Two days earlier than their decisive match in opposition to Portugal, Megan Rapinoe was requested how the USA ought to be judged in the event that they fail to win this World Cup. Rapinoe paused for 4 full seconds, a lifetime for a charismatic participant who can heat the tensest of press rooms.
“I by no means considered that,” she mentioned. It was one of many shortest solutions she’s going to ever present.
She had to consider it on Tuesday. The People slogged by means of an insipid, scoreless draw with Portugal to edge into the knockout spherical and keep away from the undesirable distinction of turning into the primary USA staff – and the primary defending champions – to exit of a Ladies’s World Cup within the group stage.
“Whoo, lady, that was anxious,” Rapinoe mentioned, motioning to wipe her brow and laughing to defuse the strain. “I used to be like, fuck. Proper on the finish, yeah, that’s anxious.”
The US have been poor in nearly each space. The again line performed errant passes out of bounds below minimal strain. The midfielders have been stagnant and supplied valuable few passing choices. The ending was wasteful.
Extra regarding for the US is that the tepid efficiency on Tuesday was removed from an anomaly. The identical issues have been there within the 1-1 draw with the Netherlands 5 days earlier. They have been there final yr, when USA fell to England, Spain and Germany for his or her first three-game dropping streak in 30 years.
Everyone seems to be ready for the performances of this USA staff to meet up with the person expertise on the roster. However when is that going to occur, if in any respect? Extra importantly: How will it occur? With so many issues damaged, what truly wants to vary? The US could not know themselves.
“I’m unsure,” mentioned defender Kelley O’Hara, who was a part of the USA groups who’ve gained the previous two World Cups.
O’Hara’s position at this World Cup has been diminished to that of a role-player veteran who holds teammates accountable and leads by expertise. She did all that after Tuesday’s sport, first to console Rose Lavelle for selecting up a yellow card meaning she is suspended for the subsequent match, after which as she screamed within the staff huddle after the sport, a collective sigh of reduction nonetheless reverberating from the American followers at Eden Park.
“However I consider on this staff,” O’Hara continued. “I do know what this staff is able to, I belief our coaches and the sport plans that they put collectively, and the scouting stories that they offer us, and I’m gonna wait to see that and go from there.”
That perception – that intangible American mentality that so typically borders on cliche – was referenced by teammates within the aftermath of Tuesday’s near-disaster. Alex Morgan, competing in a fourth World Cup, mentioned she is aware of the staff have the expertise. Rapinoe mentioned she has “blind confidence” within the group.
None of that solutions the USA’s obtrusive tactical issues, nevertheless. Their subject within the first half in opposition to the Netherlands was an ill-timed and out-of-sync defensive press. USA head coach Vlatko Andonovski and his gamers all admitted as a lot after that match and within the days following, but Tuesday’s efficiency introduced the identical struggles with no solutions. After preliminary excessive strain, the USA dropped off and as soon as once more let their opponents management the tempo.
Portugal had 56% of the possession and tried – and accomplished – extra passes. Portugal didn’t have a shot on track, however Jessica Silva’s first-half breakaway and Kika Nazareth’s swerving volley earlier than half-time have been warnings. Ana Capeta’s strike off the put up in second-half stoppage time was inches away from ending USA’s match.
The USA had escaped catastrophe. For the primary 5 minutes of the second half at Eden Park on Tuesday, a stadium-wide fireplace alarm rang out into the night time and informed folks to evacuate. Amid mass confusion among the many 40,000-plus, an announcement ultimately got here that it was a false alarm. The chaos, the confusion: it was all befitting of a surreal efficiency from the US, one which warranted its personal evacuation from the World Cup.
Andonovski made solely two modifications to the beginning XI, certainly one of which was extensively anticipated. Lavelle began instead of Savannah DeMelo within the No 10 position and Lynn Williams earned her first World Cup begin instead of Trinity Rodman up entrance. Lavelle was presupposed to be the answer for the staff’s midfield points. Her suspension for the subsequent match solely worsens an already determined state of affairs for the US.
After the match, Andonovski rebutted an endless stream of questions about his team’s deficiencies by reiterating that Portugal are a talented team who executed their plan brilliantly. And Andonovski snapped back at the idea that the USA players lacked the mentality and will to win.
But “hope” and “belief” remained the operative words among Andonovski and his players after the match. But if the US expect to win a third World Cup, they will need more than hope. Luck alone won’t win it, either, although it can be a necessary ingredient.
Defender Crystal Dunn said they were “very fortunate to have another opportunity” in the knockout round. “That’s where you have to dig deep,” she said. “That’s what it takes to win a World Cup. It’s not easy to do this and we’re taking it one game at a time.”
One game at a time. Survive and advance. Mission accomplished to get out of the group. If the Americans cannot fix the problems that have plagued them at this World Cup – and over the past year – they will be on their way home.
On Sunday, Rapinoe was asked about the 2011 World Cup quarter-final against Brazil. The United States were on the brink of elimination in that game before she served a cross to Abby Wambach for an equalizer in the 122nd minute. Reflecting back, she said she could remember thinking in that moment, as the US desperately chased the game, that she was going to be part of the worst USA team ever. USA had not – and still have not – ever finished worse than third at a World Cup.
Those days of continued domination have long felt over as other top nations progress and the pool of talented teams widens. Portugal’s fine display in their first World Cup is evidence of that. Colombia’s win over Germany on Sunday is, too.
USA do not look like a contender right now. With a potential match against a tough (and familiar) Sweden team looming on Sunday in Melbourne, Rapinoe & Co are staring down that same 2011 fate in 2023: Is this the World Cup where the USA goes out early? It nearly happened on Tuesday but for the woodwork.
“If you’ve got to get up for a knockout round match in a World Cup, I don’t think anybody needs that kind of motivation,” Rapinoe said. “We got out of the group what we wanted to get out of the group, which is to get to the next round.”
Anything more than that right now looks like a serious challenge.