AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- The width of the post. That is how close the U.S. women's national team came to being eliminated from the 2023 World Cup.
Fortunately, for the U.S., the shot from Portugal substitute Ana Capeta in the first minute of second-half stoppage time bounced away from danger, allowing the U.S. to escape with a 0-0 draw that punched its ticket to the round of 16.
"It was a beautiful sound to hear it hit the post, that's for sure," said U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher.
The sequence was perhaps the only one all night that could be described as "beautiful" by the U.S. in what was an ugly match. The way it's playing right now, the U.S. doesn't look nearly capable of winning this Women's World Cup.
The result saw the Americans advance to the knockouts in second place in Group E behind the Netherlands, but that was about the only positive. Now, instead of getting a very manageable game against Italy or South Africa in the round of 16, the U.S. will likely play Sweden -- a team that has given the Americans fits in the past, and has looked plenty sharp in winning its first two matches. (When they met at the 2020 Olympics, Sweden won 3-0.)
On top of that, midfielder Rose Lavelle, viewed as being critical to the Americans' chances for success, picked up her second yellow card of the tournament, and will now serve a one-game suspension.
More than one player summed up the game by offering up a variation of the phrase "survive and advance," and U.S. defender Kelley O'Hara could be seen delivering an impassioned speech to her teammates in the postgame huddle along a similar theme.
"I just told them, 'Listen guys, like, we did what we had to do. This game's done. Group stage is done. We advance, it's World Cup soccer, that's the name of the game. Get out of your group and then go from there,'" O'Hara said. "And for us, this is in the rearview and the only thing that we're looking at and focused on is the round of 16: one game at a time. It's knockout soccer. Like, it's time to go."
The "survive and advance" mantra, coined by famed college basketball coach Jim Valvano many years ago, implies that the winning team did some things well, but this was a shocking performance for the Americans. Players under no pressure hit passes straight out of bounds. For the night, the U.S. completed just 62.3% of its passes, a shocking number for a team used to owning the ball. Too often, the marking in midfield was nonexistent, and on those occasions when the U.S. did get the ball in front of goal, the finishing was awful.
About the only part of the U.S. game that acquitted itself well was the defense, but there were enough anxious moments at the back to send the collective blood pressure of U.S. fans skyrocketing. That includes the aforementioned shot from Capeta, caused in part by Julie Ertz misjudging an aerial ball.
"I don't think that was a good performance altogether, starting from the back line, midfield forward," U.S. manager Vlatko Andonovski said. "I don't think we were able to solve the problems that the opponent was presenting. There were moments where we did, and it looked good, but those moments were very few and not enough to be able to walk out of here with several goals. So hopefully we can synchronize and get the lines in sync for the next opponent."
It's worth noting that the progress Portugal has made in the past six years or so was on display in this match. After absorbing some early pressure, the Portugal midfield quartet of Dolores Silva, Andreia Norton, Tatiana Pinto and Kika Nazareth realized it could play through and around its U.S. counterparts, which led to some sustained spells of possession that had the Americans back on their heels. The U.S. never did look entirely comfortable.
"Our girls were very brave, and they make an amazing game today," Portugal manager Francisco Neto said.
Portugal's play doesn't entirely explain how poor this U.S. performance was. Sure, this was a game that brought with it considerable pressure, but instead of meeting the moment, the U.S. seemed to wilt. Why that was the case is up to Andonovski to sort out, but the focus will need to be on the attack. At the moment, there's seemingly not enough quality from the front six to be consistently dangerous, even as he brought Lavelle and Lynn Williams into the starting lineup.
Andonovski did insist it had nothing to do with desire or willingness to win.
"We own it," he said. "We know it's not good enough."
This isn't the first time a U.S. team has underwhelmed during the group stage of a World Cup. The 2015 squad limped along until the semifinals, when it finally hit its stride once Carli Lloyd was moved into more of an attacking role. But that team, even as it struggled, was still winning games. The current U.S. side, meanwhile, is managing to make the wrong kind of history. For the first time at a Women's World Cup, the U.S. failed to win at least two games in the group stage.
Joey Lynch reports on the U.S. women's soccer team's disappointing 0-0 draw with Portugal to finish second in Group E.
Ultimately, there has been enough talk about "easing into the tournament." That time has passed. The level of urgency has increased. The same goes for the U.S. needing to "find chemistry." This group has been together since June 26. If it hasn't developed chemistry by now, when will it? It speaks to a team that got ahead of itself mentally, and this was nearly the Americans' undoing.
O'Hara was asked whether the U.S. could win if it didn't play better than it did against Portugal.
"I don't know, man, like, that depends on what Sweden is like," O'Hara said
Forward Alex Morgan sounded more optimistic: "I know this team and I know what we're capable of, and just because it hasn't clicked every moment on the field and we're not putting the goals in the back of the net doesn't mean these aren't the right players for the job. The confidence is there and now we just have to prove it out on the field."
The eye test says otherwise. Without that belief, not to mention an ability to execute, the U.S. faces the very real prospect of exiting a Women's World Cup earlier than any other in the team's history.