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Team USA in the Women's World Cup
Well, at least they made it out of the group.
It’s been an uneven performance for the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) so far. Coming in as the favorites and back-to-back champions, the squad was expected to dominate the 2023 Women’s World Cup. Instead, the team shows flashes of brilliance that never seem to amount to much. Team USA has played three games so far, and the results aren’t exactly what fans had in mind. They beat Vietnam 3-0, tied the Netherlands 1-1, and tied Portugal 0-0. This gives them a total of five points and leaves them second in the group. Enough to advance, but just. What’s going on?
First, it’s important to acknowledge how impossible of task it is for the USWNT to meet expectations. The US has dominated women’s soccer for its entire existence, especially over the last decade. The US has finished third or better at every Women’s World Cup. That means if the US loses in the semi-final to the eventual champion, and loses the third-place match, it will be the worst showing for the USWNT. Ever. The US has literally played the maximum number of Women’s World Cup matches. Half of all Women’s World Cups have been won by the US. These are insane, unthinkable stats - surpassed only by the US Women’s Basketball Team at the Olympics, which has won seven straight gold medals.
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Imagine being the head coach with such expectations. If you win the World Cup, you have met expectations. Come in second and you have failed expectations. Come in third and you have tied the worst outcome in team history. Fourth (or worse)? You have set the worst outcome in team history. And, oh yeah, any country that knocks out the US will instantly become legends back home. Your opponents have all the motivation in the world, while you need to be perfect. The head coach, Vlatko Andonovski, came under criticism after the 3-0 victory over Vietnam for not scoring more! Talk about a thankless job.
Considering those expectations, some of the criticisms are a bit unfair. One of the biggest weaknesses of soccer, as many Americans will tell you, is the lack of scoring. There is a lot of luck that goes into most goals. This view rankles a lot of sports fans who are biased toward believing results are deterministic, but it’s the truth. The reality is much more stochastic. Consider this. There have been six matches so far this World Cup where the final score is 0-0. Neither team scored the entire game! At the same time, however, there have been five own goals. This implies there’s a great deal of luck to scoring. So some of the criticism is misguided, especially when looking at one game in a vacuum. A team can always lose, let alone tie.
On the other hand, the US has now played three games and has not met (the very high) expectations in any of them. Defenders of the USWNT would say that women’s soccer has improved in the last decade. There are more nations devoting resources to their women’s squads and the days of the US beating a team 13-0 are over. That’s a fair enough point, but it’s also important to remember that this year’s World Cup is also bigger than previous iterations, with 32 teams instead of 24. Even if women’s soccer has improved, at the group stage, one would expect the US to do at least as well as they have historically because the bottom teams are weaker than before. After all, their group draw this World Cup was favorable. The Netherlands was ranked 9th, Portugal 21st, and Vietnam 32nd going into the tournament. The result? The US only got five points and scored four goals, the former the fewest and the latter tied for the fewest in US Women’s World Cup history. They have had tougher group draws in previous World Cups and done much better.
At first, the criticisms of the US after the Vietnam game seemed unfair. They won 3-0! It was the opening match, there are bound to be some jitters. Now those criticisms seem more reasonable, as Vietnam crashed out of the tournament without scoring a single goal. The Netherlands beat them 7-0. Vietnam was one of those teams that probably made the World Cup because it expanded to 32 teams, and the disparity showed. Yet the US never looked that comfortable against them.
More concerning, the US didn’t use the first game to shake off any rust or nerves. If anything, the Vietnam game was their best performance. Against the Netherlands, they also looked a bit off. I wouldn’t quite say out-of-sync, but those brilliant plays (and finishes) that one expects from Team USA were missing. That said, The Netherlands is a good team, so a tie against them isn’t the worst thing.
That set up the third US game against Portugal. This should have been a romp. Portugal is ranked 21st and is making their Women’s World Cup debut. The US also has a strong incentive to win the group, as the second-place team will have to play Sweden and then likely Japan just to make it to the semifinal. In order to win the group the US knew just beating Portugal wouldn’t be enough. It meant beating them big, as the first group tiebreaker is goal differential and the Netherlands will likely score repeatedly against Vietnam.
Instead of a romp it was a whimper. The US played Portugal to a 0-0 draw, finishing second in the group and setting up a difficult round of 16 match against Sweden. Portugal almost won the match in the closing moments, with a shot bouncing off the post. If that shot would have gone in, the US would have gone home after an objectively terrible finish, not just one relative to extreme expectations. Former star Carli Lloyd even said, “And I'm just not seeing that passion, I'm just seeing a very lackluster, uninspiring [team] taking it for granted. Winning and training and doing all that you can to be the best individual player you can be is just not happening.”
Despite all the negatives, there are some bright spots. The US, as always, has a criminally underrated defense. Scoring only four goals in three matches is not great, but allowing only one goal in three matches is superb. This lockdown defense has gotten the US through the group stage. Now it’s time for the offense to find its groove. This happened in 2015, when the US scored four goals while conceding one in the group stage (sound familiar?), and continued to dominate defensively through the rest of the tournament. They didn’t allow another goal until the final, where they easily beat Japan 5-2.
Going forward, the US has to find its offense. This is where coaching comes in. The US has the best team in the world by far. America has so many fantastic players that a majority of the Philippines National Team is from the US! Team USA’s bench would likely be ranked in the top 10 if they formed a separate squad. It is inarguable that there exists an offensive juggernaut through some combination in the roster. Coach Andonovski must find it. If he doesn’t, the US might do far worse than finish in fourth place.
Finally, always remember, when you play for Team USA, every kick is a free kick.