The United States is clearly not the dominant team that won the 2019 Women’s World Cup.
The Americans have advanced to the knockout stage at this edition of the tournament, but just barely after a 0-0 draw with Portugal in their final group match. After the final whistle on Tuesday night, Alex Morgan stood expressionless with her hands on her hips.
It was a look of frustration. If the Americans don’t pick up their play, their run to a third straight World Cup title could soon be over.
With just one win and a pair of draws, the United States fell to second in Group E behind the Netherlands. The Americans now head to Melbourne, Australia, for a Round of 16 match against the top finisher from Group G, which wraps up Wednesday.
The United States scored just four goals in group play — a sharp contrast to the 18 they scored in the group in 2019. In each of their first six matches four years ago in France, the Americans scored within the opening 12 minutes.
“I think there’s things we can do better for sure, things we could do better from the last couple of games. But I’m not going to dwell on it. It is what it is,” veteran Megan Rapinoe said. “We need to play better and we know that. We need to be a little bit more fluid and I think just a little bit more connected offensively.”
The team has 14 players who are making their first appearance in a World Cup, and for 12 of them, it’s their first big international tournament. Coach Vlatko Andonovski focused on developing young talent after the United States settled for a disappointing bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics.
Andonovski rolled out the same lineup for the first two matches of the group stage against Vietnam and the Netherlands. The starters had never played together before.
Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle, who both scored in the 2-0 victory over the Netherlands in the World Cup final four years ago in France, had picked up injuries in the run-up to the tournament and their minutes were restricted.
When Lavelle was subbed into the group match against the Dutch last Thursday, she gave the team a second-half spark and served up the corner kick to Lindsey Horan for the goal that pulled the U.S. into a 1-1 draw.
Hoping to boost the attack, Andonovski changed things up against Portugal, starting Lavelle for midfielder Savannah DeMelo and replacing forward Trinity Rodman with Lynn Williams. Still, the scoring issues persisted.
Lavelle picked up her second yellow card in the match against Portugal, meaning she won’t be available to play on Sunday in Melbourne.
Portugal nearly scored in stoppage time, but Ana Capeta’s blast hit the post. A loss to the Portuguese would have sent the Americans home after the group stage for the first time at a World Cup or an Olympics.
Following the draw, former U.S. forward Carli Lloyd blasted the team as “uninspiring.”
“Disappointing. They don’t look fit. They’re playing as individuals and the tactics are too predictable,” Lloyd said on the Fox Sports postgame show.
Andonovski was asked afterward about Lloyd’s comments.
“One thing that I want to say is that this team wanted to win this game more than anything else, and they’ve put everything they could in preparation for this tournament and in every game,” Andonovski said. “To question the mentality of this team, to question the willingness to win, to compete, I think it’s insane.”
The United States is also missing Mallory Swanson’s scoring punch and Becky Sauerbrunn’s veteran leadership on the backline. Swanson, the team’s top scorer this year, tore her patella tendon in an exhibition match with Ireland in April. Then Sauerbrunn, the team’s captain, announced in June that she was unable to get over a foot injury in time for the tournament.
The Americans, who have won a record four World Cups, had not needed the third and final group-stage match to clinch a spot in the knockout round since 2007.
Going into the match against Portugal, the United States sat atop Group E even on points with the Netherlands but holding an edge on goal differential. The Dutch erased that advantage and took the group lead with a decisive 7-0 victory over Vietnam, in a match played simultaneously Tuesday night in Dunedin.
The Netherlands now heads to Sydney to face the second-place team from Group G, which includes Sweden, South Africa, Italy and Argentina. The United States plays the group’s top team — likely Sweden. If the U.S. can win in Melbourne, it’s back to Auckland for the quarterfinals.
But there’s no guarantee unless the team can find that 2019 magic again. And fast.
“I know this team and I know what we’re capable of,” Morgan said. “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.”