US coach Vlatko Andonovski said it was “insane” for anyone to question the team’s commitment as he responded to criticism from former American international soccer star Carli Lloyd.
“The player of the match was that post,” two-time World Cup winner and former US player Lloyd said on the FOX broadcast – a reference to Portugal hitting the upright late on – adding that her former teammates are “lucky to not be going home right now.”
The 0-0 draw in Auckland on Tuesday, New Zealand, saw the four-time world champion finish as runner-up in Group E, likely setting up a meeting with Sweden in the last 16 on Sunday.
“Everyone is entitled to opinion and, you know, they can say whatever they want, but I just know how this team feels,” he added.
Andonovksi, however, acknowledged that the team underperformed against Portugal, as the US came painfully close to exiting the tournament when substitute Ana Capeta hit the post in the dying moments of the game for the European team.
“It’s not like we played well by any means, but we owned it,” said Andonovski. “We know that it’s not good enough … We’re not happy with our performance, but we qualify for the next round. We’re moving on.”
Lloyd’s comments came after images surfaced of the American players’ reaction following the draw.
“I have never witnessed something like that,” she said, adding: “To be dancing, to be smiling?”
What’s gone wrong for the USWNT?
A victory against Vietnam and draws against the Netherlands and Portugal mean this was the US’ worst-ever group stage performance at a World Cup, according to FIFA, and Tuesday’s game was just the sixth time in the history of the tournament that the team has failed to score.
And that’s not all: this was the first time the US has failed to win successive World Cup group stage matches and the second time (after 2011) that it has failed to win its group.
No team has ever won the Women’s World Cup having collected as little as five points in the group stages, but now the defending champion must try and do exactly that.
“The performances aren’t where we want them,” experienced forward Megan Rapinoe, who came on as a second-half substitute against Portugal, told reporters.
“But we’re through to the next round. We’re finding ways to get results that we need and I think finding our way into the tournament.
“We obviously haven’t played together a ton as the same lineup over a long period of time, we have people come back from injuries. It’s no excuse but I think we knew it was going to take a little bit of time to get into the tournament. Now it’s time to figure it out.”
The current US team is a mix of older players like Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Kelley O’Hara – all appearing in their fourth World Cups – and younger players like Sophia Smith, who scored twice against Vietnam, making their debuts at the tournament.
It’s clear, as the players themselves know, that things haven’t clicked for Andonovski’s team yet.
“I think we just haven’t really controlled the ball as well as we would like to,” midfielder Julie Ertz told reporters after the game against Portugal.
“I think we’re giving up easy transitions for other teams. So I think for us, it’s just honing in and having more quality on the ball … It’s coming together as a team and really providing options for each other. I think there are a lot of little small things that we can do to just collectively hold onto the ball better.”
What’s next for the US team?
The message from Andonovski and his players is that this is not time to panic.
Despite a nerve-wracking conclusion in the draw against Portugal and finishing behind the Netherlands, the US would appear on paper to have enough experience and star quality to beat any team in the tournament.
Next up will likely be Sweden, which currently sits top of Group G, though that last-16 matchup won’t be confirmed until the conclusion of Wednesday’s games.
“The approach is it’s do or die,” Morgan told reporters. “The knockout stage – anything can happen and we are looking to get back, feel good, get our bodies back, and we’ll be watching tomorrow to see who we will be playing.
“I don’t think it’s big adjustments. I feel like it’s taking advantage of the chances that we have. We created enough to put the ball in the back of the net.”
The US team’s historical success at the tournament places enormous pressure on the side each time it takes to the field. As well as winning four world titles – 1991, 1999, 2015 and 2019 – the US has shown remarkable consistency by reaching at least the semifinals of every Women’s World Cup.
To make matters harder, there will be no Rose Lavelle for the round-of-16 game with the midfielder suspended after picking up a second yellow card against Portugal. The players, however, remain undaunted by the weight of adversity and expectation.
“I’m very confident in this team,” midfielder Lindsey Horan told reporters. “Obviously, this is not the performance that anyone wanted to see, or we felt like, you know, we could do. I think we need more and we will build off of that. You’re gonna see a better team in the round of 16.”