USWNT narrowly escape elimination, Cardinal remain in title contention

This article is part of a series on the 2023 World Cup. Read coverage of previous games here.

It’s less than two weeks into the Women’s World Cup (WWC) and five Cardinal remain standing — barely. 

If it wasn’t for a margin of inches in Auckland, no Stanford player would be left in the tournament. 

For 90 minutes, the U.S. was out-played and out-possessed in Auckland. They seemingly had no game plan versus Portugal.

For the entirety of the game, it felt as if the tournament debutants were one possession, one momentum shift, one counter attack away from a historic victory. Portugal, anchored by a formidable midfield, was undoubtedly in control.

It looked like that breakthrough moment for Portugal would finally come as stoppage time began. Tied at zero, second-half substitute Ana Capeta broke through the United States’ backline and took a powerful strike.

Goalie Alyssa Naeher dove left.

The shot passed beyond her outstretched fingers. 

Was the USWNT’s dominance finally coming to a close?

But the ball struck the goalpost.

The post, not any United States player, ultimately held off the biggest upset in Women’s World Cup and U.S. soccer history. The draw exposed the USWNT’s lack of confidence and predictable tactics. 

The match could have — and perhaps should have — been the first time the U.S. women’s team has ever been knocked out of a World Cup in the group stage. But for now, they live to see another day.

“The player of that match was the post,” said two-time World Cup champion turned FOX analyst Carli Lloyd during a postgame broadcast. “You’re lucky to not be going home right now.”

It’s a harsh but necessary reality check.

“Today was just simply uninspiring, disappointing,” Lloyd said. “They don’t look fit. They’re playing as individuals.”

The United States entered the WWC as title favorites, but with the way they’ve been playing, the elusive three-peat is looking less and less and less likely with each game. The USWNT topped Vietnam, but not in the dominant fashion many fans expected. Then faced with the Netherlands, the U.S. began to crack, only forcing a draw. And in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, the United States looked totally defeated. They never had a chance to breathe, much less put together sustained attacks. When the stadium fire alarm went off after halftime, the alarm bells seemed to be representative of a larger identity crisis playing out on the pitch. The USWNT was scorched.

Tuesday’s tie marked the first time in 13 games that the U.S. was held scoreless.

“They’re playing to not lose, versus playing to win,” Lloyd said. “That’s the difference that I see. Portugal played to win, and they almost did.”

Sophia Smith started the game and had a few promising passes into the box, but she was ultimately out defended again and again. The United States’ forward was stripped of the ball, aggressively at times, before she could cause any true disruptions to a staunch Portuguese backline and midfield. 

After earning a yellow card, Smith was taken out after an hour of play to make way for winger Megan Rapinoe.

Like Smith, Naomi Girma ’22 has started all three games and was one of the few bright spots versus Portugal. 

The fact that Girma and the other U.S. defenders have only given up one goal in the tournament thus far is a testament to their reliability and skill, but the United States have also been largely unchallenged, having not yet faced the high-powered offenses of teams such as Japan or England. (The Netherlands took five shots against the USWNT and only one, the eventual goal, was on target.) 

Girma and the United States will face Sweden in the first round of the knockout stage. Expect Swedish defender Amanda Ilestedt, who’s already scored three goals in this World Cup, and forward Fridolina Rolfö, who’s added two, to cause trouble. Sweden has outscored its opponents by eight in their first three group stage games; compare that to only a three goal differential for the U.S. during the same time span.

Despite a new starting line-up in the midfield and substitutions throughout the Portugal game, Andi Sullivan ’18 again played all 90 minutes. Her position group, however, again struggled to maintain control and win possession throughout. After a while the USWNT just bypassed the center of the field, passing long balls up the pitch to avoid Portugal’s staunch midfield with little success.

Defender Kelley O’Hara ’09 came in in the closing minutes of the game as an act of defensive desperation and provided the leadership and the composure the team lacked. As she first ran onto the pitch she repeatedly pointed to her head as if to tell her teammates “use your head, play smart.”

O’Hara, playing in her fourth World Cup, helped slow the game down and took wind out of Portugal’s sails, preventing any more explosive counter attacks. With her guidance, the United States narrowly maintained a scoreless draw. When the final whistle rang, O’Hara’s leadership was again apparent. 

It was she who gathered the team and delivered a postgame speech — not head coach Vlatko Andovski. 

“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 majority of the knockout stage bracket is now secured with the U.S. finishing second in its group behind the Netherlands. It is only the second time in USWNT history that the women’s team has not won its group. The United States next plays in Melbourne on Sunday, Aug. 6 at 2:00 a.m. PT. 

It will be the U.S.’ first match of the tournament on the Australian subcontinent, after playing all three group stage games on New Zealand soil. Let’s hope a new country also brings renewed athleticism, reignited passion and tactical ingenuity for the USWNT. To make the task tougher, midfielder Rose Lavelle will miss the elimination game due to yellow card accumulation.

“They just haven’t been clicking,” said Julie Foudy ‘93 to CNN. “The thing that I keep coming back to is it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of chemistry. There’s not a lot of confidence and swagger that we normally see with this U.S. team. I honestly think they need to stop thinking about the X’s and O’s and just focus on, let’s just go enjoy this and play and have fun and actually bring some joy back to it.”

Originally posted 2023-08-04 00:46:27.