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US approach final World Cup group game with a novel scenario: uncertainty

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Four years ago, the United States steamrolled their way through the Women’s World Cup, scoring in the opening 12 minutes of their first six games on their march to a second straight title.

Their start to the 2023 World Cup has been less dominant. A 3-0 victory over Vietnam in their opener was satisfactory for a brand-new starting 11, even if they were wasteful in front of goal. Then came a horrendous first-half against the Netherlands. USA captain Lindsey Horan eventually salvaged a point for her team against the Dutch, but the mood was one of disappointment not only at the result, but also the performance.

Now the Americans are in unfamiliar territory: they must pick up at least a point against Portugal on Tuesday in Auckland to secure passage to the knockout round. They are heavy favorites to win the game, but their performances thus far have only raised further questions of a team that has not looked this unsure of itself in a long time.

“I think being on the US women’s national team kind of always feels like this,” said Megan Rapinoe, who is playing in her fourth and final World Cup. “When was the last time anybody wrote a headline that was like: ‘They played the best game and that’s exactly what we were expecting them to’? No. When you’re at the top, you’re always looking to get better.”

PosTeamPGDPts
1USA234
2Netherlands214
3Portugal213
4Vietnam2-50

Rapinoe said that nobody in the team is worried about their performance, a message echoed by the rest of the squad and head coach Vlatko Andonovski. The starting 11 that was rolled out for the start of this tournament need more time together, they have said. Their greatest opponent could be time. They are running out of it, but there is precedent for US success after a poor start to a World Cup.

The US looked awful in the group stage of the 2015 World Cup and were decidedly average in a round of 16 win over Colombia. Then a tactical overhaul unleashed a team that looked like the best in the world. They thrashed Japan 5-2 in the final.

Two games in, 2023 feels a lot like eight years ago. The goal the Americans conceded against the Netherlands was the first they gave up in the group stage since the 2015 opener against Australia. In 2015, the Americans labored in their second match, a 0-0 draw with Sweden. Should the USA defeat Portugal, they’ll have seven points: the same total as in 2015.

However, there are differences. Tuesday marks the first time since 2007 that the USA enter the final group match having not already clinched a berth in the knockout round. Rapinoe embraces that uncertainty.

“For me, I’m excited that [we] have a must-perform, must-win type of game,” she said. “It’s a pressure moment and that’s what the tournament is now. Every single game from here on out is that pressure moment and that’s the best part of being at a World Cup.”

A loss to Portugal combined with a Netherlands victory over Vietnam would send the Americans home in the group stage for the first time ever. As unlikely as that scenario is, it isn’t impossible. The difference between 2023 and 2015 is that the opposition have improved. Many of the lower-ranked teams are capable of troubling top sides in the tournament, with Colombia’s historic victory over Germany on Sunday showing upsets are possible.

“All these results actually are reminders for us that the rankings mean nothing in the World Cup, rankings mean nothing in every game,” Andonovski said. “Just because we’re ranked where we are, where Portugal is ranked – it means nothing … That’s why we have so much respect for them as a team and the approach and how they play.”

Portugal are a defensively disciplined side who can hurt opponents on the counter-attack. They have pushed the US close in the recent past too: it took a late goal from Christen Press in June 2021 for the Americans to secure a 1-0 victory.

Both Portugal’s Ana Borges and Andonovski point out that the US and Portugal have changed significantly since then. Portugal coach Francisco Neto repeatedly spoke about his team’s need for “balance” in the match. Portugal must maintain it and, in order to defeat the Americans, they must unbalance the reigning champions.

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“This tournament has shown that within the field that teams that have 20 places between them, they can win as well,” Neto said. “We have our beliefs and our intentions but we have to be humble … In order for us to be successful, we have to be the best Portugal ever.”

Balance was one of the USA’s glaring issues in the first half against the Netherlands. From their defensive press to possession in the final third, the Americans looked like 11 individuals rather than the No 1-ranked team in the world. Afterward, multiple USA players were frustrated by the lack of pressure they exerted on the Dutch in the first-half.

“It’s always like a chicken and an egg situation, right?” USA holding midfielder Andi Sullivan said. “If you don’t step high enough, then it’s hard for people behind you to read, and if people behind you aren’t reading it, then it’s hard for you to go. We weren’t in sync and that happens, and we were able to adjust to it and respond.”

Neto, however, does not buy into the idea that the US look vulnerable.

“We expect that [Tuesday] we will see the best USA in this World Cup and we are preparing our team to be the best Portugal,” Neto said. “We felt the [USA] game against the Netherlands, the second half was very strong [from the Americans]. We know that the players of the US normally grow with the difficulties of the game. They are very competitive; they normally go through this kind of pressure. They feel good with these environments. We need to be humble, but we need to continue our strategy.”

There is a Portuguese saying that came up in Monday’s press conferences: Friends are friends, and business is business. Tuesday is about business.

“It will absolutely not be a walk in the park,” Andonovski said. The USA coach fielded questions about the need to finish first in the group in order to secure a favorable path to the final. Most fans will be watching Tuesday’s simultaneous Group E games – the the Netherlands take on Vietnam in the other match – with an assumption of victory for the heavyweights and an eye on the goal-difference column. Andonovski, in keeping with his team’s theme of the tournament, refused to look too far ahead.

“We don’t even want to think about step two,” he said. “It’s step one that’s most important. It’s this game, [Tuesday], from the first minute.”

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