The two-time reigning champion United States came an inch short of Women’s World Cup elimination, but Portugal’s late near-miss helped the Americans avoid the biggest upset in tournament history.
The Americans slipped through to the knockout round Tuesday despite a listless, uninspiring 0-0 draw against Portugal. The U.S. won only one game in group play for the first time in tournament history, and scored just four goals over three games.
In a hold-your-breath moment, the Americans came an inch away from elimination when Ana Capeta nearly scored in stoppage for Portugal. Her shot hit the left post and the Americans preserved the draw.
The tie was just enough to ensure the Americans advanced to the knockout round. The U.S. looked shaky at best in a game they were expected to win.
“It’s not the result we wanted, but we move forward,” forward Alex Morgan said.
The Americans, the most successful team ever at the World Cup with four titles, have never been eliminated in the group stage at the World Cup.
The path for the Americans also hinged on the results of the Netherlands match against Vietnam, played simultaneously in Dunedin. With a decisive 7-0 victory, the Netherlands bumped the United States from the top of Group E.
The Americans move on as the second seed as Portugal, playing in its first World Cup, heads home. The Portuguese sobbed on the field after the final whistle after having come so close to upsetting the mighty Americans.
Lynn Williams had a chance on a header in the 14th minute but Portugal goalkeeper Ines Pereira smothered it. While the U.S. controlled possession and had the better chances, the team could not finish and the game was scoreless at the break.
Rose Lavelle picked up a yellow card in the 38th minute, her second of the group stage, and she won’t be available for the team’s round of 16 match.
The frustration of the U.S. fans at Eden Park was evident at the break, when there were scattered boos among the crowd as the teams headed for the tunnel. Early in the second half, a fire alarm went off in the stadium. It turned out to be a malfunctioning sprinkler.
The United States had a free kick from a dangerous spot in the 57th minute, but Morgan’s header popped up well over the goal. She put her hands to her face in exasperation.
“I think we just need a little bit of ruthlessness in front of the net,” Lavelle said. “I think we’re getting the chances, but it’s that final bit of ruthlessness of just putting it away.”
Megan Rapinoe came in as a sub in the 61st minute, but the Golden Boot winner at the 2019 World Cup couldn’t find that elusive goal.
U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski tweaked his starting lineup for the match and started forward Williams and midfielder Lavelle for the first time at this World Cup. He had started Trinity Rodman at forward and Savannah DeMelo in the midfield for the team’s first two games.
Lavelle boosted the team when she came in at halftime against the Netherlands on Thursday in Wellington when a lackluster opening half sent the Americans into the break down 1-0 to the Dutch. Lavell’s corner to Lindsey Horan gave the Americans a 1-1 draw in the match.
But the energy just wasn’t there against Portugal and the Americans seemed lost and unorganized for most of the match. In a post-game huddle, defender Kelley O’Hara, one of the veterans, appeared angry as she shouted at her teammates.
“I just told the team ‘Listen, we did what we had to do, we’re moving on, the group stage is done, this is over, it’s in the rearview, we have our next game in front of us and that’s the only one that matters,’” O’Hara said. “Maybe we didn’t do it the way we wanted to, or planned on doing it, but we’re advancing and this is the World Cup and that’s all that matters.”
The United States last lost in the group stage to Sweden at the 2011 World Cup, but the Americans still advanced to the final match before losing on penalties to champion Japan.
The Americans have not needed the third and final group-stage match to learn their tournament fate since 2007, when there was only a slim chance for elimination. A loss to Portugal on Tuesday would have ended the Americans’ tournament.
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 United States had won all of the previous 10 matches against Portugal. The Portuguese have never scored against the Americans.
With its decisive victory over Vietnam, the Netherlands 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.
“They made it frustrating for us, and yeah, I think we’re disappointed with ourselves. But we made it through, so we’ve got to put our energy toward that,” Lavelle said