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After 3 lackluster matches, knockout play begins for U.S. World Cup team

"I have to think it's the most important game of my career," American coach Vlatko Andonovski said of Sunday's World Cup match against Sweden.
The United States soccer team at the Women's World Cup
The United States soccer team at the Women's World Cup in Auckland, New Zealand, on Aug. 1, 2023. Andrew Cornaga / AP

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."

By failing to win Group E, the Americans are paying a heavy toll by having to face world No. 3-ranked Sweden in the round of 16 in Melbourne.

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.

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.