For more than a generation, the United States women’s national team has played out some of its best moments on the world’s biggest stages, in front of the biggest crowds in women’s soccer. World Cup finals. Olympic gold medal games. The team has, over the years, won many of those games, a long line of days to remember.
On Tuesday, though, on a chilly night in the depths of the New Zealand winter, the Americans almost endured a day they would never be able to forget.
The ending did not, in the end, go completely wrong: The United States players held on desperately to preserve a 0-0 tie with Portugal, a result that delivered them, safely but scared out of their wits, to the knockout rounds of the Women’s World Cup.
That will have to do after a game in which the United States failed to create enough scoring chances, wasted the ones it did and then flirted with catastrophe as a Portuguese shot hit the post and caromed out in second-half injury time.
The near miss was perhaps symbolic of a night that qualified as the same, of a game in which the United States, a four-time winner of the World Cup, came within inches of a stunning — and, for them, unprecedented — group-stage exit.
Far to the south in Dunedin, the Netherlands had won the teams’ group by thrashing Vietnam, 7-0, in a game played simultaneously to the United States’ dance with disaster at Eden Park in Auckland. That lopsided result was relegating the Americans to second place in the group even as the teams played, but only if they did not lose to Portugal. In the second half, survival had become the main U.S. priority.
The team had created chances, but not nearly enough and none of them particularly dangerous. As the game went on, and the stakes rose, they kept coming, and then going: shots sent high, or wide, or straight at the goalkeeper.
“This team gave everything,” U.S. forward Alex Morgan said. “We just didn’t put the ball in the net.”
An autopsy of all that went wrong for the United States can come later. Disconnected passes. Defensive failures. Substitutes sent on too late, or not at all.
Morgan dismissed the result as “unlucky,” which may be partially true. But the U.S. was also phenomenally lucky when the Portugal substitute Ana Capeta slipped behind its back line early in second-half injury time and pinged a shot off the right post.
By then the Americans had already shifted into safety mode, inserting a fifth defender as they tried to preserve what they could. The clock wound down, and then ran out, and the relief on the U.S. side was palpable.
“The most important thing,” U.S. Coach Vlatko Andonovski said, “is we got the job done.”
Afterward, he gathered his team in a wide circle on the field and spoke to the players briefly. But only after the veteran defender Kelley O’Hara had been allowed to have her say first. She offered a brief but impassioned address, punctuated by hand gestures and steely-eyed stares into her teammates’ eyes.
“I just told them, ‘Listen, guys, we did what we had to do,’” O’Hara said. “‘This game’s done. Group stage is done. We advanced.’” She, like several of her other teammates, seemed to know that low bar will not be good enough moving forward.
Others were less forgiving. On television, the former national team player Carli Lloyd excoriated her former team, and her former teammates, for their play, their preparations and their commitment, but also for what she saw as their temerity in taking postgame selfies with fans and dancing after treading so close to a humiliating exit. “The player of the match,” she said acidly, “was that post.”
Others noted the result had not come in isolation, and was the latest in a long string of just-good-enough scores over the past few months. The Americans had struggled to impose themselves on teams like Ireland and Wales before the World Cup; they failed to dominate Vietnam in their opener; and they were outplayed for a half before rallying for a tie against the Netherlands. Against Portugal, they nearly bottomed out.
Asked if he felt his team had deserved to win at Eden Park, Portugal’s coach, Francisco Neto, replied unequivocally. “What do you think?” he asked rhetorically. “Of course, yes.”
“Unfortunately we didn’t win,” he added, “and we go home.”
Instead it is the Americans who are through to the round of 16 — likely to a difficult game against Sweden, one of the world’s best teams and a title contender in its own right, on Sunday in Melbourne. After Tuesday night, that qualified as reward enough for the U.S. team.
Its players may be happy to leave Auckland behind for a few days after their narrow escape. They will be thrilled if they get a chance to return deeper in the tournament.