USWNT problems run bone deep as they hope to find next level in World Cup knockouts


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Since the tournament’s inception in 1991, the USWNT has never finished lower than third place in a World Cup, despite previous dips in the program. The goal in Australia and New Zealand was to achieve an unprecedented three-peat after winning the competition in 2015 and 2019. But right now, the U.S. looks utterly toothless in front of goal and lost in the woods tactically.

Even though the U.S. barely avoided the unthinkable — exiting the World Cup at the conclusion of the group stage — it would have been deserved, honestly. Instead, the team survived and advanced into the round of 16 via a 0-0 draw with Portugal, finishing second in Group E behind the Netherlands with a win and two draws. For those who stayed up late to watch back home, it will do little to inspire hopes of another deep World Cup run.

Just about everything that could have gone wrong did. 

As the Netherlands cruised to a 7-0 victory over Vietnam in Dunedin, scoring beautiful goal after beautiful goal, every touch for the U.S. was a struggle. They looked hesitant and uninspired. Avert your eyes from their passing network. 

Captain Lindsey Horan’s every move was designed to avoid a second yellow card that would result in a suspension for the round of 16, but despite the painful caution, it was Rose Lavelle who picked up her second yellow of the tournament in the 39th minute.

Lavelle still looked dismayed in the mixed zone after the match. 

“’I’m just disappointed in myself that I picked up that yellow,” she said. “Disappointed I can’t help the team out on the field next game. I think there’s still a lot of ways that I can help the team off the field, so I guess that’s where my energy will be.”

Vlatko Andonovski: ‘Insane’ to question USWNT mentality after Carli Lloyd ‘dancing and smiling’ criticism

By that point in the game, every single writer up in the media tribune at the stadium was already hedging their bets as they sent out their updates: it would be a problem for the USWNT if they reached the knockout stages. If. Over the past decade, that word hasn’t seen a lot of use in the group stage. The “if” at least turned to “when,” but only by the grace of the post that prevented a late winner from Portugal’s Ana Capeta in the second minute of extra time.

It’s not to say that there haven’t been moments like this in the USWNT’s history, but every single time before, the team managed to pull off some last-gasp heroics. Still, you’d have to go back to 2011, and how they were forced into a playoff home-and-away series against Italy to qualify for that World Cup. The U.S. won each of those matches 1-0, though. It wasn’t pretty, but they advanced.

That same World Cup, they also finished second in their group, behind Sweden. There are still a handful of current players who remember that. Alex Morgan is one of them. 

“We’re not happy with the performance we put out there,” she said in the postgame press conference. “But at the same time, we’re moving on. This isn’t the first time in my career we’ve moved on second in the group. So now, it’s coming back together (as a team), knowing that we have all the pieces to make it all the way, but putting that all together.”

Only moments before in the mixed zone, Morgan had gotten a question positing that Sweden would be favorites in the round of 16 (while still not yet finalized, an almost certain conclusion considering how these two teams’ tournaments histories have been interwoven). Morgan paused for the briefest of moments, before simply replying, “No,” and moving on to the next interview down the line.

The team has that level of confidence in themselves, and they must. They also must balance immediately putting this match behind them emotionally, while learning from it at the same time. 

Can that level of confidence in themselves improve though, as they reset for the knockout stages?

“I just have blind confidence in everything around us, and in myself and in the group,” Megan Rapinoe said. “So it has to. It just has to.”

It feels like we’re counting the days down until it all ends, and the work of trying to understand full sense of everything that’s gone wrong for the team at this tournament begins. 

There’s a lot, to be fair. It goes beyond a head coach, beyond a dismal performance on a Tuesday night, beyond the lack of substitutes in the Netherlands match or the lack of finishing against Vietnam in the opener. Or Andonovski’s reluctance to see if the 4-2-3-1 might work better, and to shift away from the 4-3-3, when it hasn’t just been shut down, but exploited fairly easily by opponents. Or the number of injuries the team carried into this tournament. (One could argue that the quality of refereeing had at least some impact on all three matches, too, if one were so inclined.) 

These are all symptoms, not the illness. The problem’s much deeper, reaching through the youth national teams and into the core of the program itself. We saw some of the warning signs in the last Olympics, where they lost to Canada in the semifinals, but with the strange nature of that tournament and the bounce back for bronze, followed by the project of the roster transition beginning in earnest, it was easier to overlook. There was a window for improvement, and the team looked like it was shaping up through qualification last summer. The USWNT’s lackluster group stage feels like that problem finally bubbling up to the highest levels.

Consider the track record of the two U.S. women’s youth national teams who also participate in World Cups, the U-20s and the U-17s. Every single player on the field for the U.S. comes up through this system, and it’s been a long, long time since either one of these teams has been successful.

The last time the U-20s won their World Cup was in 2012. Over the next three tournaments, their final placement got worse with each successive tournament: fourth place in Papua New Guinea in 2016 (losing to Japan), ninth in France 2018, 11th in Costa Rica 2022. The last two times, the U.S. failed to advance from their group.

It’s even rougher for the U-17s. Their best performance in the World Cup was in the inaugural one for the age group, in 2008 — held in New Zealand. The U-17s finished second there, but failed to advance from their group in 2016 and 2018 (finishing 10th and 13th place, respectively), and in the most recent U-17 World Cup, they lost to Nigeria in the quarterfinal for a sixth place finish.

It’s only going to get harder, at every level moving forward — not just in whatever match-up they face on August 6 in Melbourne. Andonovski reminded everyone on Monday that rankings mean absolutely nothing at the World Cup, but it’s more than that, and it’s more than the rest of the world catching up to the USWNT, or their lack of fear playing against the U.S. It was a lot more than stray passes or a lack of chemistry or unsophisticated tactics. 

There are bone-deep problems in the program that will need long-term solutions — not just whatever may come down the line if the USWNT goes out any earlier than the final, whether that means the departure of Andonovksi or USWNT general manager Kate Markgraf, or both. None of that is happening at this moment, though. 

There was no magical solution on Tuesday night. Rapinoe was a few inches away from playing her final minutes in a World Cup, but she could not make the difference after she entered the game around the hour mark. There was no joy from Morgan’s left foot either, despite multiple opportunities. The USWNT had their chances, as always (six shots on target to Portugal’s zero), but as is more than normal over the past year-plus, they had nothing to show for them.

Every World Cup match is a test and on Tuesday, the USWNT was lucky that it’s graded as pass/fail: Pass, you move on, fail, you go home. But was tonight the gut punch that might finally jolt the team into reaching its full potential?

“It’s definitely a reminder that every game needs to be our best game, even in the group stage,” defender Naomi Girma said, unwilling to go that far. “Now, going into knockouts, it’s win or go home. We’re still in it. We are capable of raising our level so much and playing a lot better, creating more chances, putting our chances away, being clear in the back. I think there is a higher level for this team, and going into the next round, we’re gonna need to tap into that.”

(Photo: Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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