Whatever the reason, the United States women’s national team didn’t look much like, well, a team during the group stage at the 2023 World Cup.
Those issues in cohesion must be corrected quickly.
If the Americans are to survive Sunday’s round of 16 match, probably against Sweden (coverage begins at 4 a.m., ET, with kickoff at 5 a.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app), in Melbourne, Australia, they’ll have to be better. Much better.
What has been the problem so far?
Let’s dive into some to the potential explanations and see how much each holds up to scrutiny.
Maybe Vlatko Andonovski should’ve used Lynn Williams, who had the Americans’ two best scoring chances in Tuesday’s lifeless 0-0 tie with Portugal, in the first two group games. Maybe he should’ve started Rose Lavelle, perhaps the Americans most dangerous attacker, against the Netherlands despite concerns about her match fitness.
And maybe Andonovski is just a little bit too conservative, too defensive-minded to be the manager for his Ferrari of a squad, one whose natural inclination has always been to go-go-go.
For all the hand wringing following the first round, there’s no denying the U.S. was stingy in conceding just one goal (to the Netherlands’ Jill Roord) over the three games.
But coaching isn’t why the U.S. couldn’t keep possession consistently. It’s not why the Americans couldn’t string simple passes together, or keep their shots on target. That comes down to the individuals. When enough of them don’t play well, it’s difficult to beat any World Cup foe.
Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and USWNT speak after draw vs. Portugal
“I had a couple of opportunities and I need to be more clinical and really put it away,” Williams said following Tuesday’s contest. She was hardly alone.
One other worry moving forward: Both Portugal and the Netherlands caused the U.S. major problems by maintaining possession for long stretches — a weakness other foes have surely noticed.
“We know that the players of the U.S. are amazing,” Portuguese coach Francisco Neto said. “But they suffer when they don’t have the ball.”
Lack of reps among the starters
Andonovski used the same starting 11 in the first two games. He made just two changes for the third. He said the plan was to give extended minutes to his starters, a group that had never lined up as unit before the opener, mainly because of injuries.
Still, these players didn’t just meet each other last month. The spine of this team — goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, center back Julie Ertz, central midfielder Lindsey Horan and striker Alex Morgan — have been regulars since at least 2017. All were World Cup winners four years ago in France. So were Lavelle and fullback Crystal Dunn.
Defenders Emily Fox and Naomi Girma and winger Sophia Smith have been starters since at least early last year. And counting training camp, this 23-player World Cup roster has been practicing together for more than a month. They know what they need to do.
“This result wasn’t good enough for us” — Lindsey Horan speaks on USWNT’s performance
“It’s about holding the ball a little bit more, expecting the pressure and not letting them create turnovers as often as Portugal was able to do with us,” Morgan said. “And then it’s taking care of our chances in front of goal, set pieces in particular: corners, free kicks.”
Young players a little too green
This one has a little more merit. Smith, 22, was the Americans’ best player in the 3-0, World Cup-opening win over Vietnam, but struggled mightily against the tight marking of the Dutch and Portuguese.
For all her talent and promise, 21-year-old Trinity Rodman has looked mostly out of her depth at her first major tournament; Williams took Rodman’s spot in the first-round finale. Girma (23) and Fox (25) have been good, but neither can offer the take-no-prisoners leadership the USWNT doesn’t have enough of without injured heart-and-soul captain Becky Sauerbrunn.
Six World Cup newbies started the first two matches. Five started the third. Expecting that many rookies to perform like grizzled vets on the biggest stage is a lot to ask.
“We need to put our chances away when we get them” — Megan Rapinoe
Older players a little too old
Morgan had a pretty assist in the opener but hasn’t scored. By her own admission, the Portugal match wasn’t the 34-year-old’s best. “We missed some big chances,” she said afterward. “I did, as well.”
Ertz has been a rock at center back but the other two key members of the squad that won back-to-back World Cups in 2015 and ’19, Kelley O’Hara and Megan Rapinoe, aren’t starters anymore and can only do so much. Rapinoe, 38, will retire from the national team after this tournament.
But the elders’ story isn’t written yet.
“Honestly, the group is great,” said Dunn, who along with Horan and Lavalle is between the two cohorts. “We know that we can be better.”
While nobody feels sorry for the deepest team in the competition, losing all-planet attackers Catarina Macario and Mallory Swanson to serious knee issues has played a major role in the Americans’ struggles to score Down Under. Sauerbrunn is a huge loss on the field and in the locker room.
“This team needs us to get behind them” — Heather O’Reilly on the tough criticism the U.S. is facing after draw vs. Portugal
Injures also prevented two 2019 mainstays — defender Abby Dahlkemper and midfielder Sam Mewis — from participating at this World Cup.
Yet as similarly shorthanded England showed in Tuesday’s rout of China, absences can open doors for others. The players on Andonovski’s roster are better than they’ve shown.
On Sunday, they’ll get another opportunity to prove it.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.
FIFA WORLD CUP WOMEN trending
USA vs. Portugal: Everything to know, time, how to watch group-stage finale
2023 Women’s World Cup schedule: How to watch, TV channel, dates, results
USA vs Portugal odds, preview: Bettors big on USWNT, Alex Morgan to score
Portugal-USWNT, China-England predictions, picks by Chris ‘The Bear’ Fallica
USA vs. Portugal lineup predictions: Should Alex Morgan start?
USA vs. Portugal scouting report: How Americans secure much-needed result
USA faces loaded knockout bracket if and when it advances to Round of 16
‘Basically, it’s footy & coffee’: Inside the USWNT’s caffeine-fueled bonding
How Japan’s domination of Spain complicates Team USA’s plans
Get more from FIFA Women’s World Cup Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more