March 5, 2024

Portugal draw makes it clear: The world no longer fears the USWNT

The longer it went on, the more the truth hit home. Sure, there was the obvious reality that no one could miss – the United States is not playing well and can consider itself mightily fortunate to still be in the Women’s World Cup.

But stinging more sharply was the other truth, the one that has robbed the national team of one of its most valuable weapons, the one that has changed the face of its entire campaign.

The USA has lost its fear factor.

No longer do teams quake in their cleats at the mere sight of Alex Morgan, Lindsey Horan, Megan Rapinoe and that crest on the jersey with the four title-winning stars sewn in above it.

On Tuesday, Portugal, a team ranked No. 21 in the world, competing in its first-ever World Cup and made up mostly of players who ply their club trade in their country’s domestic league of only moderate strength, took it to the Americans.

The final score read 0-0. The moral victory, without question, stood with the European side as they departed New Zealand with their heads held high, wondering what might have been after Ana Capeta’s 90th minute effort hit the post instead of turning her into an instant national hero and the architect of a monumental shock.

[USA vs. Portugal takeaways: USWNT advances despite very off-key performance]

Portugal’s Ana Capeta was INCHES away from ELIMINATING USWNT in the World Cup

Portugal's Ana Capeta was INCHES away from ELIMINATING USWNT in the World Cup

Portugal didn’t play scared, not in the slightest. The players weren’t intimidated, not by the USWNT’s iconic stars who have been around forever, nor the new ones like Sophia Smith, for whom this year’s tournament was supposed to be the big breakout.

Gone are the days when even games like this could be considered a formality. Everyone is coming to play now, reputations be damned. The near-guarantee of the USWNT facing an awestruck opponent in the early stages of a World Cup, locked in place four years ago and for decades before that, has evaporated.

The squad needs to find another way. This wasn’t the answer.

Portugal vs. United States Highlights | 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup

Portugal vs. United States Highlights | 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup

As the game ticked on, with missed chances from Morgan and Lynn Williams but also a clear possession advantage for the Portuguese, the USA couldn’t get things going. It couldn’t string passes together with any neat regularity. The players looked at times as if they’d never laid eyes on each other before, let alone played together.

Portugal didn’t have the more accomplished players, but it was the better team and delivered the better performance. It had a terrier in midfield, Dolores Silva, who battled for everything and never shirked a challenge. It had a pair of rugged central defenders in Carole Costa and Diana Gomes who held their line, kept their cool and moved the ball forward quickly when possession was regained.

It had an entire lineup of players who didn’t turn up accepting they were going to get bullied, but who showed up prepared for a scrap.

It wouldn’t have taken much for this to end in an American disaster. Capeta’s big chance, sure, or a lucky deflection, a weird bounce, a moment of inspiration, a defensive error. The Americans survived and yes, that’s absolutely the right word for it.

[Rose Lavelle picks up second yellow of World Cup, will be suspended for Round of 16 match]

Onto the round of 16 then, meekly, after the Netherlands turned what shaped up as a battle for first place in Group E into a stroll, as it hammered Vietnam, 7-0. For the Americans, what’s next is almost certainly a meeting with Sweden, their nemesis at both the Rio and Tokyo Olympics.

Sweden has long been one of the few teams not to fear the Americans. There is a lot of company in those ranks now.

It is hard to win three straight World Cups. It’s even harder when you’ve lost your magical spell over the rest of the field.

Portugal vs. United States Takeaways: ‘USWNT is playing to not lose, not playing to win’ | World Cup Tonight

Portugal vs. United States Takeaways: 'USWNT is playing to not lose, not playing to win' | World Cup Tonight

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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