AUCKLAND, New Zealand — A goal post saved the United States from elimination at the Women’s World Cup.
Ana Capeta nearly scored for Portugal in stoppage time but her shot hit the left post and the United States escaped with a uninspiring 0-0 draw Tuesday night that got them through — just barely — to the knockout round.
The U.S. won only one game in group play for the first time in tournament history, scoring just four goals over three games. With the scoreless draw, the United States fell to second in the group behind the Netherlands and will head to Melbourne, Australia, for a round of 16 match on Sunday.
“We should have put some in the back of the net and we didn’t. We own that,” Alex Morgan said. “We’re not happy with the performance we put out there. But at the same time, we’re moving on.”
The Americans, the most successful team ever at the World Cup with four titles, have never been eliminated in the tournament’s group stage. But they looked shaky against the Portuguese, who were playing in their first World Cup.
“Obviously we want to play great and score a lot of goals, and we didn’t do that. We know that it can be better, and has to be better, moving forward,” said Megan Rapinoe, who came into the match in the second half as a substitute. “But ultimately, we’re on to the next round.”
The Portuguese players sobbed on the field after the final whistle after having come oh-so-so close to upsetting the mighty United States. Capeta’s shot about two minutes into stoppage time looked so good that her coaches started celebrating and the players on the bench jumped to their feet.
“I truly believed that the goal would be in that moment and I was starting to think, `What can I do to help my players if we’re winning 1-0?'” coach Francisco Neto said. “What I said to the girls, I was very proud. Of course, they are very sad because we have huge expectations of ourselves.”
Lynn Williams, who started for the U.S. for the first time in the tournament, had a chance on a header in the 14th minute but Portugal goalkeeper Ines Pereira smothered it. While the U.S. controlled possession and had the better chances, the team could not finish and the game was scoreless at the break.
Rose Lavelle picked up a yellow card in the 38th minute, her second of the group stage, and she won’t be available for the team’s round of 16 match.
U.S. Fans Voice Frustration
The frustration of the U.S. fans at Eden Park was evident at the break, when there were scattered boos among the crowd as the teams headed for the tunnel. Early in the second half, a fire alarm went off in the stadium but it turned out to be a malfunctioning sprinkler.
The United States had a free kick from a dangerous spot in the 57th minute, but Morgan’s header popped up well over the goal. She put her hands to her face in exasperation.
“I think we just need a little bit of ruthlessness in front of the net,” Lavelle said. “I think we’re getting the chances, but it’s that final bit of ruthlessness of just putting it away.”
Rapinoe came in as a sub in the 61st minute, but the Golden Boot winner at the 2019 World Cup couldn’t find that elusive goal.
U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski tweaked his starting lineup for the match and started both Williams and Lavelle for the first time at this World Cup. He had started Trinity Rodman at forward and Savannah DeMelo in the midfield for the team’s first two games.
Lavelle boosted the team when she came in at halftime against the Netherlands on Thursday in Wellington when a lackluster opening half sent the Americans into the break down 1-0 to the Dutch. Lavelle’s corner to Lindsey Horan gave the Americans a 1-1 draw in the match.
But the energy just wasn’t there against Portugal and the Americans seemed lost and unorganized for most of the match. In a post-game huddle, defender Kelley O’Hara, one of the veterans, shouted at her teammates.
“I just told the team ‘Listen, we did what we had to do, we’re moving on, the group stage is done, this is over, it’s in the rearview, we have our next game in front of us and that’s the only one that matters,’” O’Hara said. “Maybe we didn’t do it the way we wanted to, or planned on doing it, but we’re advancing and this is the World Cup and that’s all that matters.”
The United States last lost in the group stage to Sweden at the 2011 World Cup, but the Americans still advanced to the final match before losing on penalties to champion Japan.
The Americans have not needed the third and final group-stage match to learn their tournament fate since 2007, when there was only a slim chance for elimination. A loss to Portugal on Tuesday could have ended the tournament for the Americans.
Going into the match, the United States sat atop Group E even on points with the Netherlands but holding an edge on goal differential. But the Netherlands erased that advantage and took the group lead with a decisive 7-0 victory over Vietnam, in a match played simultaneously in Dunedin.
The Netherlands now heads to Sydney to face the second-place team from Group G, which includes Sweden, South Africa, Italy and Argentina. The United States plays the group’s top team — likely Sweden.
“They made it frustrating for us, and yeah, I think we’re disappointed with ourselves,” Lavelle said. “But we made it through, so we’ve got to put our energy toward that.”