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US Women Missing That 2019 World Cup Magic as Knockout Match Looms

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US Women's World Cup team struggles, barely advancing to knockout stage. Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe express frustration. (AP/Andrew Cornaga)
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The United States is clearly not the dominant team that won the 2019 Women’s World Cup.

The Americans have advanced to the knockout stage at this edition of the tournament, but just barely after a 0-0 draw with Portugal in their final group match. After the final whistle on Tuesday night, Alex Morgan stood expressionless with her hands on her hips.

NEXT MATCH: USA vs. Sweden on Sunday, August 6 at 2 a.m. (Pacific)

It was a look of frustration. If the Americans don’t pick up their play, their run to a third straight World Cup title could soon be over.

With just one win and a pair of draws, the United States fell to second in Group E behind the Netherlands. The Americans now head to Melbourne, Australia, for a Round of 16 match Sunday against Sweden.

Comparisons to 2019

The United States scored just four goals in group play — a sharp contrast to the 18 they scored in the group in 2019. In each of their first six matches four years ago in France, the Americans scored within the opening 12 minutes.

“I think there’s things we can do better for sure, things we could do better from the last couple of games. But I’m not going to dwell on it. It is what it is,” veteran Megan Rapinoe said. “We need to play better and we know that. We need to be a little bit more fluid and I think just a little bit more connected offensively.”

New Players and Injuries

The team has 14 players who are making their first appearance in a World Cup, and for 12 of them, it’s their first big international tournament. Coach Vlatko Andonovski focused on developing young talent after the United States settled for a disappointing bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

Andonovski rolled out the same lineup for the first two matches of the group stage against Vietnam and the Netherlands. The starters had never played together before.

Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle, who both scored in the 2-0 victory over the Netherlands in the World Cup final four years ago in France, had picked up injuries in the run-up to the tournament and their minutes were restricted.

When Lavelle was subbed into the group match against the Dutch last Thursday, she gave the team a second-half spark and served up the corner kick to Lindsey Horan for the goal that pulled the U.S. into a 1-1 draw.

Hoping to boost the attack, Andonovski changed things up against Portugal, starting Lavelle for midfielder Savannah DeMelo and replacing forward Trinity Rodman with Lynn Williams. Still, the scoring issues persisted.

Lavelle picked up her second yellow card in the match against Portugal, meaning she won’t be available to play on Sunday in Melbourne.

Portugal nearly scored in stoppage time, but Ana Capeta’s blast hit the post. A loss to the Portuguese would have sent the Americans home after the group stage for the first time at a World Cup or an Olympics.

Former Forward Carli Lloyd’s Criticism

Following the draw, former U.S. forward Carli Lloyd blasted the team as “uninspiring.”

“Disappointing. They don’t look fit. They’re playing as individuals and the tactics are too predictable,” Lloyd said on the Fox Sports postgame show.

Andonovski was asked afterward about Lloyd’s comments.

“One thing that I want to say is that this team wanted to win this game more than anything else, and they’ve put everything they could in preparation for this tournament and in every game,” Andonovski said. “To question the mentality of this team, to question the willingness to win, to compete, I think it’s insane.”

Absence of Key Players

The United States is also missing Mallory Swanson’s scoring punch and Becky Sauerbrunn’s veteran leadership on the backline. Swanson, the team’s top scorer this year, tore her patella tendon in an exhibition match with Ireland in April. Then Sauerbrunn, the team’s captain, announced in June that she was unable to get over a foot injury in time for the tournament.

The Americans, who have won a record four World Cups, had not needed the third and final group-stage match to clinch a spot in the knockout round since 2007.

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