The United States must up its level across the board as it likely faces a lethal round-of-16 opponent at the Women’s World Cup, having just barely kept its title defence alive after a breathtaking scare in Tuesday’s final group-stage hurdle.
The five-inch-wide (12.7 cm) aluminium goalpost was all that separated the Americans from utter disaster on Tuesday, as a stoppage-time shot from Portugal forward Ana Capeta ricocheted off the post.
The attempt was so convincing that even the Portugal coach on the sideline at first believed it had pulled off the impossible, getting past the top-ranked Americans and into the knockout stages in its tournament debut.
Instead, it packed its bags after the scoreless draw as the United States stayed behind, left to wonder how its journey for an unprecedented third consecutive title had nearly turned into utter disaster.
“The player of the match was that post,” Fox Sports correspondent Carli Lloyd said in a grim appraisal of her former teammates’ performance.
Had the USA exited, it would have been its worst World Cup performance and would have marked the first time that defending champions had gone out in the group stage.
“It’s not like we don’t have the pieces,” coach Vlatko Andonovski told reporters. “We have to stick to our principles, we have to stick to our game model and we have to stick to our philosophy.”
It will almost certainly meet its rivals Sweden in the round of 16, where it must find a way to manage the 1995 winners’ set-piece prowess in order to survive.
Doing so will require that the United States resolve its lack of synchrony, with Andonovski previously blaming the starters’ lack of playing minutes together.
His decision to start Lynn Williams over Trinity Rodman at forward on Tuesday failed to yield better results as the Portugal goalkeeper Ines Pereira had no problems fending off Williams’ best efforts.
“There are areas where we need to get better ... starting from the back, how to connect with the midfielders, and from the midfield to the forwards, how to be more dangerous,” Andonovski told reporters.
“We have to get on the same page when it comes down to the final goal, to the final pass and execution.”
Another potential issue for its round-of-16 affair in Melbourne on Sunday will be the absence of star midfielder Rose Lavelle, who had been limited in her minutes after coming back from a long injury recovery.
The crafty, creative fan-favourite got the start on Tuesday - and appeared to be the most capable against the Portugal defence - but incurred a second yellow card that will prevent her from playing in the next match.
It was a disappointing blow to an American midfield already operating below the level they wanted to see.
“I wouldn’t say that the midfield three was disjointed - obviously we wanted to see them more connected,” said Andonovski. “We just have to get better.”
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