MELBOURNE — Good has so far been barely good enough for the United States women’s soccer team, as its quest to win a third straight World Cup has been marred by uncharacteristically mediocre play.
The one-sided scores and dominating play that USWNT fans have come to expect have yet to materialize in two weeks of competition, prompting observers to wonder if U.S. command of women’s soccer has come to an end.
So U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski said he fully understands the stakes ahead of America's knockout match Sunday against Sweden.
"I have to think if it’s the most important game of my career, but it certainly is the most important game of the tournament," he told reporters Saturday in Melbourne.
"It’s the knockout stage and there’s no room for mistakes. So we have to be ready to be our best in this game."
The Swedes dominated Group G, outscoring their opponents, 9-1, in earning a date with the struggling Americans.
In the goal-less Portugal match on Tuesday, in which the U.S. was saved by a goal post during a stoppage time shot, which could have done the unthinkable and sent the U.S. home in group play.
"There’s no sugarcoating it, we had a bad game against Portugal and we are lucky we have moved on from that and are looking forward to this match," U.S. veteran Alex Morgan said.
In wining once and drawing twice in group play, the United States has outshot Vietnam, the Netherlands and Portugal by a cumulative, 53-8, put more efforts on net, 19-1, and won more corner kicks, 26-2.
As seemingly impressive as those numbers might be, they’re down from America’s three wins in 2019 group play, when the U.S. outshot Thailand, Chile and Sweden by a cumulative, 73-8, put more efforts on net, 32-4, and won more corner kicks, 30-3.
The Americans will have to generate an attack Sunday without Rose Lavelle, who was suspended for the Sweden match after picking up a second yellow card.
“You know, she’s one of the best players in the world and not having her is definitely going to change the way we’re, or at least some of the ways, we can approach the game,” Andonovski said.
“But in same time, we have a great roster with great players on the roster that are here for reasons for moments like this when they’re ready and able to step in at any point in time.”
This upset-filled tournament has already seen the shocking early exits of Germany, Brazil and Canada and Morgan said she feels no joy seeing a trio of America's greatest challengers taken off the table.
"It’s crazy tp see teams like Germany, Brazil, Canada, not making it to the knockout stage," Morgan said. "And that just goes to show the growth of this game and and the fact that you know, you still want to continue to stay on top but you have to prove that time and time again you have to be able to show back tomorrow."
Should the Americans crash out on Sunday, an exit in the round of 16 would mark the U.S. women’s program’s earliest elimination from competitive international play in memory.
While winning world titles isn’t a given, even for the dominant United States, the Americans have always come close to the pinnacle even when falling short.
- United States lost, 1-0, in the semifinals of the Covid-delayed Olympics in 2021 to eventual champion Canada.
- The Americans were eliminated in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Rio Olympics by Sweden in penalties.
- Japan lifted the World Cup after wining in penalties against the United States in the title match of 2011.
- And then there was the humiliating World Cup semifinal loss to Brazil in 2007, when U.S. coach Greg Ryan curiously went with veteran Briana Scurry ahead of Hope Solo between the sticks as the Americans were thrashed, 4-0.
All of those American disappointments would pale in comparison to a U.S. elimination on Sunday.
"I think we hold ourselves to a high standard and I think within that the U.S. holds, and in the rest of the world holds, us to a high standard which is valid," Morgan said.
"I mean, we have been very successful for decades on this, in this, team. So we hold a high expectation for ourselves and we want to continue to prove ourselves right."
Susan Archer and Molly Hunter reported from Melbourne and David K. Li from Los Angeles.