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The USWNT Should Be Out of the World Cup. Here’s How They Survived

6 minute read

It almost ended, for the Americans, in a flash.

It should have ended, for the Americans, in a flash.

All night on Tuesday in Auckland, Portugal had outplayed the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) in the final group stage game for both teams at the 2023 Women’s World Cup. A Portugal win would send that team through to the Round of 16 in its World Cup debut—and the USWNT home before the knockout stage for the first time in its history. That would be the biggest upset in women’s World Cup history.

And early in second-half stoppage time, the game still scoreless, Portugal had a chance to seal it.

Portugal’s Telma Encarnação headed a ball forward to Ana Capeta, who had just entered the game and slipped between U.S. defenders Emily Sonnett and Emily Fox. Her look at the top of the box was clean, and it looked true. She sent the ball past U.S. keeper Alyssa Naeher, who dove to her right but had no chance to save it.

Capeta’s shot, and Portugal’s dreams, bounded off the right post. The Americans were saved by a metal bar. If Capeta directed it just a few more inches to the left, the USWNT was going home.

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What a disappointing effort from the Americans. As the Netherlands kept scoring goals against Vietnam on Tuesday in the simultaneous other final game in the group, and as Portugal kept controlling possession against the U.S.—breaking through the American defense at one point in the first half, nearly sneaking in a goal—and as Rose Lavelle earned a questionable yellow card for a tackle (knocking her out of the next game), and as the second half started and the story still felt the same, and as the Portugal attempt richocheted off the post in that terrifying stoppage-time moment, one thing became very clear: The United States might advance to the knockout stage of this 2023 World Cup. But other than that—and granted, it’s quite a key “that”—this game against Portugal in Auckland could not have turned out any worse for the U.S.

The U.S. and Portugal played to a 0-0 draw, so the Americans do advance to the Round of 16. But for just the second time in the history of the women’s World Cup, the U.S. did not win its group. The Netherlands secured two victories in this Group E round-robin: a 7-0 thumping of Vietnam on Tuesday and a 1-0 victory over Portugal on July 23. The U.S., meanwhile, has just one win: a 3-0 victory over Vietnam on July 21.

So the USWNT goes to Melbourne, to play the winner of Group G, most likely a tough Sweden side that already has the statement victory the Americans so desperately lack: a 5-0 win over Italy on July 29. That knockout match kicks off on Sunday, August 6th, at 5 a.m.

If the U.S. plays as flatly and uninspiring as it did Tuesday, no way the Americans beat the Swedes. 

The USWNT entered this World Cup as the betting favorite, but at this point, this team looks anything but. Where was the urgency and creativity on Tuesday? What was the game plan? Just playing for a 0-0 draw was all too dangerous. Yes, that outcome would get the U.S. through to the next round. But it was the mere minimum, the strategy of a team just trying to sneak into the knockout stage in its World Cup debut—like Portugal— not the four-time World Cup champions. 

Just one goal against a team that the USWNT has historically dominated would at least have given the American players some breathing room and not leave them susceptible to the unimaginable, like what happened in that 91st minute: Capeta’s clear look, the need for the goal post to play savior. 

Or what happened in the 80th minute: a silly U.S. turnover resulting in a Carole Costa shot that slipped out of Naeher’s hands, right in front of the goal. Again, for a moment, the USWNT’s World Cup seemed in peril, for that flash. Luckily for Naeher and the Americans, the U.S. defense surrounded the ball, which Naeher fell on.

Portugal controlled possession of the ball for 43% of the game, compared to 39% for the USWNT, and Portugal completed 310 passes, to 212 for the Americans: Portugal was crisper and more organized. 

Portugal should still be playing in this World Cup. The Americans shouldn’t.

The USWNT has to bear this mental burden. The trick: wiping it clear out of their minds, and starting with a blank slate on Sunday. Yes, the group stage failings don’t really matter anymore—except for Lavelle’s second yellow. She’s been a spark, but now she can’t play on Sunday.

The U.S. has to turn things around, fast. Nothing so far has suggested the Americans deserve any breaks in Australia. When the Americans couldn’t convert so many chances against Vietnam, for example, coach Vlatko Andonovski harped on the positive: at least the U.S. did its job and secured the three points. 

The U.S. beat Vietnam 3-0. The Netherlands beat them 7-0. That’s how you take care of business. That’s how you win your group. 

When veteran Kelley O’Hara checked into the game in the very last moments, she pointed to her head. Be smart, she was telling her teammates. It’s so concerning for the Americans that such a message had to be sent. At that point, just taking care of the ball for a few more seconds, and surviving the group and getting out of Auckland with a 0-0 draw, was the prudent strategy. But the Americans were still messing around. 

The final whistle then blew. Mercifully. 

The USWNT was granted second life here. Now what will they do with it?

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com