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Perspective | At a joyless World Cup for the USWNT, an uncomfortable truth sets in

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — In 2007, in the Chinese city of Hangzhou, a 21-year-old soccer sorceress named Marta wrecked the U.S. women’s national team with a World Cup performance of beauty and awe.

The 4-0 defeat to Brazil was the low point for a program that had enjoyed almost nothing but highs since setting the benchmark for the women’s game two decades earlier. Goalkeeper Hope Solo’s postgame tantrum added turmoil to a terrible performance and pushed the team into crisis mode for the remainder of the lost trip.

From a competitive standpoint, though, it wasn’t even that low: The loss had occurred in the semifinals. The Americans would go on to finish third, which, for most programs, would elicit gratification.

USWNT, looking lost at the World Cup, advances with an uninspired draw

Now fast forward to Tuesday’s 0-0 draw with Portugal in a group-stage game. No one player wrecked the U.S. team. It wrecked itself.

The Americans did advance to the knockout stage by finishing second in Group E, but they don’t seem long for this tournament. Despite their No. 1 ranking and record number of championship trophies, they will enter Sunday’s round of 16 against Sweden as underdogs.

USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski said the team is moving on from a draw with Portugal on Aug. 1 as they advance out of the group stage of the World Cup. (Video: Courtesy of FIFA)

In eight prior appearances, the U.S. team never departed the World Cup before the third-place game. At this point, a semifinal appearance seems far-fetched.

But here they are, well behind England, Japan, Colombia and others in terms of quality of play. The chemistry is all off. Everything they try to do is laborious. There is none of the joy and ruthlessness that has defined U.S. women’s soccer for decades.

The performance against Portugal, a World Cup newcomer, continued a trend of disenchanting acts in major tournaments under Coach Vlatko Andonovski. Friendlies and four-team events that fill the calendar between the global spectacles are necessary, but the World Cup and the Olympics are all that matter. No one remembers who won the SheBelieves Cup.

Two summers ago, the Americans sputtered through the Tokyo Games and finished second in the group before getting bounced in the semifinals by Canada. They finished with a 2-2-2 record, including a hollow victory in the bronze medal match.

Here, they underperformed against overmatched Vietnam during a 3-0 victory before clawing their way back from an early deficit to draw with 2019 runner-up Netherlands, 1-1. The latter outcome was concerning but not alarming. The Portugal game figured to be their breakout moment; it was far from it.

Portugal knew how to disrupt the U.S. rhythm and counterattack. By late in the first half, the Portuguese body language suggested they, not the United States, would win this game.

Analysis: Can the USWNT fix its World Cup problems?

The Americans’ failure to run up the score against Vietnam meant, no matter how they fared Tuesday, they would finish behind the Dutch, who predictably built an insurmountable goal differential (the first tiebreaker) by bashing the Vietnamese, 7-0. Alas, a tiebreaker wasn’t even necessary. The U.S. team would head to Melbourne, Australia, as the second-place team or head home.

The Americans not only failed to defeat Portugal, they were fortunate to draw. Despite 10 defeats and no goals in the all-time series, the Portuguese were the better side over 90 minutes and came within inches of winning in second-half stoppage time when a shot that hushed the stadium for an instant kissed the right post. The U.S. aura of superiority is collecting dust in a trophy case at U.S. Soccer Federation headquarters in Chicago.

In fairness, emerging programs such as Portugal’s are bringing greater competition to the women’s game. The days of U.S. landslide victories in major tournaments are almost over. Given their head start in women’s soccer, though, the Americans should still be winning these types of matches.

The USWNT has owned the World Cup. Its rivals are catching up.

Afterward, many Portuguese players broke down in tears, heartbroken after falling just short of a titanic upset. The Americans seemed dumbfounded by the disaster they had just averted and the unfamiliar path they remain stuck on.

In interviews immediately after the game, the players said things that positive-thinking players always say: We got through the group, the knockout stage is a new tournament, we can play better. But as USA Today columnist Nancy Armour wrote, behind the scenes, Andonovski and the players had better be sharing uncomfortable truths with one another: They are in a bad place right now.

Barring a U.S. renaissance, Andonovski is all but certain to lose his job. Over 16 major tournaments since 1991, the Americans have never gone two in a row without advancing to the final. The worst stretch was Olympic silver medal (2000) and World Cup third place (2003).

If they fall short this month, they will have missed the championship game in three of the past four majors. (The 2016 Olympic squad, under Jill Ellis, lost in the quarterfinals to Sweden in a shootout before winning the 2019 World Cup.)

A new generation, with absurd skill and chill, emerges at the World Cup

Injuries have played a part this year: Mallory Swanson, Becky Sauerbrunn, Catarina Macario and others were ruled out of roster consideration, and Rose Lavelle has been slow to return from an April setback. Lavelle will miss the match against Sweden with a yellow-card suspension.

The United States, though, develops more high-quality female players than any other country and fields a good domestic league. Andonovski’s job was to select the right ones and get them on the same page. Last fall, his team lost three straight to world-class teams (England, Spain and Germany). In the spring and summer, it was not particularly impressive in two games against Ireland and one vs. Wales. The current 12-game unbeaten streak seems like a mirage.

The players are culpable as well. Alex Morgan (121 career goals) has scored none. Sophia Smith has disappeared since posting two goals in the opener. Andi Sullivan has struggled in the defensive midfield. Megan Rapinoe’s last dance has been with two left feet.

“I just have blind confidence in everything around us and in myself and the group,” Rapinoe said. “It has to [get better]. It just has to.”

The U.S. players and their glum fans here woke Wednesday to cold, wind and rain, prolonging the hangover from the Portugal match. It’s winter here. The sun rises late and sets early — a fitting backdrop for a team lost in the dark.

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