After the thrill of winning successive Women’s World Cup titles, the 2023 tournament – so far – has brought the US team very much down to earth with a bump.
Hearts must have been in the mouths of US fans during Tuesday’s tense 0-0 draw with Portugal as the four-time world champion came within inches of being knocked out of the tournament altogether.
Portugal was desperately unlucky not to engineer one of the great Women’s Cup shocks, notably when Ana Capeta’s shot deflected off the post in the last few minutes of the game.
For a team that has been so historically dominant at the Women’s World Cup, performances throughout the 2023 edition so far have been underwhelming for women’s soccer’s most dynastic team.
Their three matches at this tournament represents the US women’s worst group stage performance in World Cup history – and no team has ever won the competition having picked up so few points in the preliminary stage.
Alex Morgan listed the lack of clinical finishing at the tournament as the main cause of the team’s woes.
“You know, I feel like it’s taking advantage of the chances that we have,” Morgan told reporters. “We created enough to put the ball in the back of the net.”
At the 2019 World Cup, the US scored 18 goals in its three group stage matches, compared to just four at this year’s edition, though 13 of them came in a famous win over Thailand. However, the goalless draw against Portugal marks the first time since 2015 that the team has failed to score in a World Cup game.
It is just the second time the US has failed to win its group – the other occasion being 2011, though they did progress to the final that year.
The USWNT had also never before failed to win at least two of its group games in any of its World Cup appearances.
However, this World Cup has arguably demonstrated a leveling up in the women’s game. True there have been some wide margins of victories – the Netherlands beat Vietnam 7-0 on Tuesday – but nothing to compare with Thailand’s humbling by the US four years ago.
Prior to Tuesday’s draw, the USWNT had a 10-0 winning record against Portugal, scoring 39 goals and conceding zero. In that context, it is easy to see the 0-0 draw as a disaster, but that would fail to take into account Portugal’s rapid progress that saw them hold England to a similarly stagnant draw and routing co-hosts New Zealand 5-0 in friendlies earlier this year.
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Blending experience with potential
Four-time winners of the tournament, the USWNT arrived for their three Group E games in New Zealand looking to bring home the trophy for the third consecutive edition – something no team in either men’s or women’s football has achieved.
However, the squad perhaps does not possess the veneer of invincibility that characterized those squads.
It was defeated by Canada in the semifinals of the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 – having already been handily beaten 3-0 by Sweden earlier in the tournament. In October 2022, the team suffered back-to-back defeats to England and Spain in high-profile friendlies – marking the first time in over five years that had occurred.
While stalwarts of previous successes such as Megan Rapinoe and Morgan remain in the team, Andonovski has overseen something of a transitional period as a host of young talent looks to establish itself in the team. The US squad contains 14 World Cup debutants – blending them in seems to have taken a toll on the usual ruthless efficiency of the team.
It should also be remembered that the USWNT is missing a number of players due to injury: forwards Mallory Swanson, Christen Press and Tobin Heath, midfielders Sam Mewis and Catarina Macario, as well as defenders Becky Sauerbrunn and Abby Dahlkemper.
Doubt among the fans?
Known for their extravagant support of the normally all-conquering side, US women’s soccer fans appeared to demonstrate the same nerves that reverberated among the squad during the draw against Portugal in Auckland.
From the outset, the players were greeted by a relatively subdued fanbase with supporters arriving at the stadium much later in comparison to the matches against Vietnam and the Netherlands. Both of those games had seen fans streaming in more than an hour before kick-off – whereas empty seats remained plentiful at Tuesday’s decider right up until the start of the game.
Similarly, tension seemed to affect the vociferousness of the crowd. Compared to the constant cheering and chanting that accompanied the US draw with the Netherlands in Wellington, the loudest cheers against Portugal came when substitutes Rapinoe and Trinity Rodman entered the fray.
Former US stars have been scathing in some of their analysis, most vocally Carli Lloyd, who said the team was “lucky not to be going home right now” following the “lackluster and uninspiring” performance against Portugal.
“There is a difference between being respectful to the fans and saying hello to your family, but to be dancing, to be smiling – I mean the player of the match was that post,” Lloyd said in response to footage of Rapinoe, Morgan and Crystal Dunn dancing before the Portugal match.
“To question the mentality of this team, to question the willingness to win, to compete, I think is insane,” Andonovksi said. “Everyone is entitled to their opinion and you know, they can say whatever they want, but I just know how this team feels,” he added.
Amid the criticism it should be remembered that winning three championships in a row is extremely hard to do at the professional club level in any sport, let alone the World Cup in international soccer – no nation has ever won three consecutive World Cups in either the men’s or women’s game.
The biggest enemies of sustained success in sports are waning motivation and, most often, time. The amount of effort, skill and sustained passion it takes to keep up success over a long period of time is beyond difficult and the years between World Cup editions only ratchet that tension up.
Professional teams have a hard enough time keeping a core championship group together and healthy for three consecutive years on a club level – the US women’s team is attempting to do the same thing eight years after winning the 2015 World Cup.
The legendary generation of players which won that tournament is largely gone – just five players from 2015 remain on the squad in this tournament.
The teams that have pulled off three-peats are often legendary. The 1990s Chicago Bulls, the late 90s-early 00s New York Yankees and Los Angeles Lakers, the mid-century Boston Celtics and Montreal Canadiens, the New York Yankees (again) in the 1930s and 40s – all teams that live long in the consciousness of American sports fans.
In club soccer since 2000, only an iconic Real Madrid side led by Cristiano Ronaldo won three UEFA Champions Leagues in a row from 2016 to 2018.
Meanwhile Spain is the only country to ever win three major international championships in a row – Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 – and those were still two different competitions taking place every two years, not very comparable to what the US women are attempting to do in winning three World Cups in a row.
This US Women’s National Team still has a path – albeit one that might be rockier and steeper than most observers expected even two weeks ago – to join those legendary ranks. If they pull it off, perhaps the disappointing draws from the 2023 tournament’s group stage will be seen as a case of survive-and-advance.
Eyes on the prize
USWNT players and Andonovski are looking ahead to the knockout stage, where they will meet the winner of Group G – almost certain to be Sweden, barring a 10-goal swing in the final round of fixtures.
“The approach is do or die,” Morgan told reporters after the game. “You know, the knockout stage, anything can happen and we are looking to get back, feel good, get our bodies back and we’ll be watching tomorrow to see who will be playing.”
Star midfielder Lindsey Horan, who has scored two of the team’s four goals, was keen to focus on the positives after the game but recognizes the need for improvement.
“I’m very confident in this team,” she said after the match. “Obviously, this is not the performance that anyone wanted to see, or we felt like we could do.
“I think we need more and we build off of that. You’re going to see a better team in the round of 16.”
Andonovski himself added, “We’re not happy with our performance, but we qualify for the next round. We’re moving on.”
The USWNT’s next fixture takes place on Sunday at 5 a.m. ET. A game against Sweden, No. 3 ranked in the world by FIFA, has plenty of World Cup history. Sweden drew with the US in 2015 and also beat them in 2011 – the last time any team defeated the USWNT inside regulation at a World Cup. The US defeated the Scandinavian side in the group stage in 2019.