Portugal’s headed home looking happy. The flight back to Lisbon should be filled with post-elimination joy and realizations of long-term progress knowing how they held the former undisputed world champions in check. And that’s all you need to know about how the United States women’s national team performed in its final Group E match, a scoreless draw. It advanced the Americans into the Round of 16 as the runners-up, setting up a likely collision course with Sweden, and with the form both teams have shown as of late, that’ll be the World Cup swan song for the Stars and Stripes.
For those who didn’t get up in the middle of the night to watch the game, more zest would’ve been displayed drinking coffee from the couch than the United States showed for most of the game. Most uninspired of all was USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski, who will be lucky not to have to find his own transportation out of Melbourne. He made one substitution against the Netherlands, which was correctly panned. Andonovski made one change, again, before the 84th minute against Portugal. And there’s one Lindsey Horan goal to show for the two draws, after the US captain nearly started swinging at her club teammate. Leadership starts from the top down, and while plenty of blame goes to the players, what positive spark has the coaching staff provided since landing in Oceania? The best way to say how bad Andonovski’s tactics have been at the World Cup? I prefer Gregg Berhalter. I know, it’s that bad.
Andonovski first subbed on Megan Rapinoe in the 61st minute for Sophia Smith, which was a questionable decision by itself, as Smith scored twice against Vietnam, all the way back on July 21. The former Golden Ball winner looked horrible and didn’t add a damn thing to the team. Alex Morgan has been a step slow the whole damn tournament and didn’t deserve to start and was subbed off in the 97th minute. The game needed Kelley O’Hara and Trinity Rodman about 20 minutes before either touched the field. And in the post-game huddle, it was O’Hara, playing in her fourth World Cup to speak first, giving an animated speech to her team about what just transpired. Andonovski was next to speak and looked nonchalant. What a clear picture for the viewing audience of this shitshow.
About half an inch separated the Americans from being eliminated in the group stage for the first time in the competition’s history. Ana Capeta’s shot rang off the right post in the 92nd minute, beating the 5-woman US backline and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher before the woodwork saved the two-time defending Women’s World Cup titleholders. Before Tuesday morning’s match, the USWNT was 10-0-0 all-time against the Portuguese with a 39-0 goal differential. At least Naomi Girma played well, as there’s now a tie on the ledger. It’s also the first time the US hasn’t won multiple group-stage games. It’s only the second time the Americans didn’t win their group. Turbulence was expected in Group E. Being lucky not to have their World Cup end after three games was not. And it’s the state of the union, lethargic, uncreative, disappointing, and downright maddening.
Sweden or not, whoever the Americans’ knockout-round opponent is, won’t have to face Rose Lavelle, who is suspended for the next US game because of yellow-card accumulation. A team with no momentum or confidence heading into a matchup likely against the No. 3 team in the world without one of its best players? Just how US Soccer drew it up. Coming home without a knockout-stage win will cost Andonovski his job, if the pink slip hasn’t already been curated. At this point, a trip to the semifinals should be the minimum to keep him on the touchline. And that isn’t a certainty, and playing beyond Sunday seems like a foreign thought. The fire alarms that rang around the stadium and were unmistakable on the broadcast at the beginning of the second half shouldn’t be the only distress signals for this team.
The overall play, coaching, personnel decisions, and most aspects of that USA performance will draw warranted criticism for the team with four stars above the red, white, and blue crest. Expectations are sky-high for the US women, and I bet the team would rather fall below being a world power than having those lofty presumptions permanently tempered. That’s compared to their male counterparts, who rightly celebrated a scoreless draw against England at their World Cup last Black Friday. You know what will right the ship? Winning, an instance the USA has done once at this World Cup. This is still the No. 1 team in the world for the moment, and now here’s a silver-platter chance to prove it Sunday morning. Who has any faith that’ll happen?