Lionesses handed World Cup boost with 3 of top eight-ranked nations knocked out| SolSportHQ
When the final whistle blew to confirm the United States’ 0-0 draw with Portugal on Tuesday and their place in the World Cup knockouts, there was little celebration.
The camera panned to veteran Julie Ertz, whose expression was downbeat and frustrated. If you had not known the result, you would have assumed the US had lost.
Three of the top eight-ranked nations are now out of this tournament and if the US do not up their game, they could soon be joining them. It all adds up to good news for England, who now have what many would consider to be an easier route to the final than they would have anticipated.
The US ultimately finished second in their group, behind the Netherlands, and now face a tricky last-16 tie with Sweden – who have won three games from three.
But in comparison to other countries, it could have been a lot worse. Germany, Brazil and Olympic champions Canada all crashed out of their groups to lower-ranked nations as the gap closes to the world’s leading teams.
Germany had never failed to reach the quarter-finals before their 1-1 draw with South Korea saw Colombia and Morocco progress at their expense.
Brazil had looked so good in their first fixture, when they thrashed Panama 4-0. But a defeat against France and a draw with Jamaica meant those two countries progressed instead.
Canada had drawn with Nigeria and beaten the Republic of Ireland but were spanked 4-0 by Australia in their final game.
The US performance against Portugal was shockingly poor. They did not look like a team who could win this tournament. Carli Lloyd, who won two World Cups and scored 134 goals in her 16-year international career, did not hold back in her analysis on Fox TV.
‘Today was just simply uninspiring, disappointing,’ Lloyd said. ‘They don’t look fit. They’re playing as individuals. And the tactics are just too predictable.’
The US team is in a period of transition. There are a raft of experienced, well-known stars who are coming to the end of their international careers and a host of exciting young players who are the future but not yet at their peak.
It has perhaps been overlooked that 14 players in the squad of 23 are competing at their first World Cup. Manager Vlatko Andonovski is trying to blend youth and experience together but, currently, it is not working.
Alex Morgan was the picture of frustration when she was substituted against Portugal. The forward only had two shots on target in the entire group stage — and one was her penalty against Vietnam, which was saved.
Megan Rapinoe has featured for just 75 minutes and has struggled to make an impact when introduced.
Rapinoe was not expected to be a starter — she is there for her experience and leadership. The 38-year-old barked instructions and words of encouragement to her team-mates when she came on against Portugal but even that could not spark the US into life.
The player everyone had been talking about coming into this tournament was Sophia Smith. The 22-year-old scored the first two goals and assisted the third in the US’ 3-0 victory over Vietnam. But against the Netherlands she gave possession away 26 times and her most notable contribution against Portugal was picking up a yellow card.
Smith still has the ability to light up the knockouts and her impact is arguably being limited because those around her are not doing enough.
Lloyd questioning the fitness of the US players was interesting given Netherlands boss Andries Jonker made similar comments before their 1-1 draw: ‘In the past, the US were a lot fitter than the rest of the world, but those days are over… what is left of their superiority?’
A Fox TV advert in the build-up to the tournament had played on the perceived arrogance of the world champions, asking the question, ‘What is it going to take to stop this US team?’ before a series of opposition countries went to various lengths to try and beat them. But, after leading the way for so long, other nations have caught up.
The gap has narrowed significantly, to the point where smaller nations can not only compete with the US — but also get results against them.
Sweden will have fond memories of playing them in tournament football, having beaten them in the group stage at the 2020 Olympics.
They will fancy their chances again in Melbourne on Sunday, especially with the experienced Rose Lavelle suspended for the US after picking up two yellow cards in the group stage. But the holders will still believe they can find form at the right time.
Andonovski was defensive after their draw with Portugal. ‘To question the mentality of this team, to question the willingness to win, to compete — I think that’s insane,’ he insisted.
‘We know it is not good enough and we’re not happy with the performance, but we have qualified for the next round and we move on.’
The manager and his players know the pressure is on and that vast improvements are needed if they are to lift the trophy for a third time in a row.