USWNT hopes to overcome frustrations in group-stage finale against Portugal for knockout round berth

So far in this World Cup, the concerns surrounding the U.S. Women’s National Team have not exactly been squashed.

Between a slew of new players, a morass of injuries and a coach in his first World Cup, the Americans have put themselves into a group-stage finale that may require some drama.

To secure passage into the knockout stage, the U.S. needs to win or draw against Portugal early Tuesday morning, or hope that Vietnam pulls off an all-time shocker against the Netherlands.

Getting the needed result against Portugal should be doable — the USWNT’s version of a weakened squad did produce a 3-0 win over Vietnam and a 1-1 draw against a strong Netherlands team — but any kind of group-stage jeopardy is new for a team that has romped across the international stage for the last eight years.

“Obviously, if we had won the last game, we would have clinched the group and been through already. But whatever,” forward Megan Rapinoe told reporters in Auckland, New Zealand. “This is the tournament. This is what it means. This is the pressure of being the No. 1 team in a World Cup, but this is just the pressure in general of being at the World Cup.

The concerns surrounding the U.S. Women’s National Team have not exactly been put to rest since the start of the World Cup.
The concerns surrounding the U.S. Women’s National Team have not exactly been put to rest since the start of the World Cup.
USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

“This moment is going to come no matter what. It’s not a bad thing. I don’t think, for everyone to be like, ‘OK, let’s strap in and get ready for this game,’ knowing that not only the result, but the performance needs to be there.”

Rapinoe’s value in this spot largely comes from her experience.

Through two games, she’s played just 28 minutes, and probably won’t play much against Portugal, if at all.

But she’s one of only a few players on this team who have experienced stress like this before.

The U.S., remember, doesn’t just need to win but needs to do so by as big a margin as possible.

That’s because first place in the group is likely to come down to goal differential, with the Americans and Dutch tied on points, and whoever finishes first will get an easier route in the knockout rounds.

“I think everybody is looking at this like, ‘Let’s go,’ ” Rapinoe said.

The good news is that the best soccer the U.S. has played in this tournament was its most recent.

The second half against the Netherlands resembled the domineering team of four years ago, with the U.S. relentlessly threatening to score.

But that only came after the Dutch controlled the opening 45 minutes, and only produced one goal as a trend of not finishing chances continued.

Trinity Rodman kicks at the ball against Netherlands' Aniek Nouwen during the Women's World Cup Group E soccer match.
Trinity Rodman kicks at the ball against Netherlands’ Aniek Nouwen during the Women’s World Cup Group E soccer match.

“We’re very direct when something’s not going the way we want it to go,” midfielder Andi Sullivan told reporters. “You have to be direct and clear and honest and loud.”

That approach paid dividends at halftime against the Netherlands. The USWNT needing such adjustments to come into play at all, though, is a change unto itself.

It’s also not known whether midfielder Rose Lavelle can play a full 90 minutes as she continues to deal with a knee injury, though it is obvious that the U.S. needs her on the field as much as possible.

Portugal will be a hefty underdog in this game, but it is not Vietnam, for which keeping the score at 3-0 could be construed as a win. The Portuguese are playing to get to the knockout rounds, too, and won’t roll over.

“We go into these moments like, ‘Hell yeah, this is exactly where we want to be,’ ” Rapinoe said. “You could feel it in the second half, even, of the game against the Netherlands, that’s coming. You know that it’s coming.

“For us, we’re excited. We’re unsatisfied with the way that we’ve played, but we know the areas that we can be better and I think that there are some really simple fixes that we can do to put ourselves in a better position to have more joy on the ball, especially in the final third.”