For those used to the United States women’s national team dominating the globe, this edition of the Women’s World Cup has come as a shock. Those who don’t tune in every four years expected turbulence, but the level of bumps and lumps the Americans have taken in Australia and New Zealand has already exceeded the damage thought possible heading into the knockout rounds. There’s no better diagnosis of how the Stars and Stripes’ plan to win an unprecedented third-straight World Cup has gone off-script than a Round of 16 showdown with fellow world power Sweden.
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Two of the top three teams in the FIFA rankings are guaranteed not to make the quarterfinals, alongside half of the top eight, at least. The group stage of this World Cup will be best remembered for the parity. Germany defeated Morocco 6-0 to start each team’s tournament ledger. The European juggernauts aren’t advancing to the knockout stages for the first time in their history, and tied the record for the highest-ranked team to fail to get out of the group stage. The African newcomers are FIFA’s lowest-ranked team to ever advance to the Round of 16. South Africa, Jamaica, Colombia, and Nigeria all advanced to bring new faces to deep rounds of international tournaments. Old heads like Canada and Brazil, hoping to end the World Cup careers of legends Christine Sinclair and Marta on a high, were eliminated in deserved fashion. The United States barely survived that ax.
“Expectations for the USWNT are ridiculously high and also part of the culture,” National Soccer Hall of Famer Michelle Akers, who represented the United States at two World Cups, told Deadspin. “To win a World Cup is extraordinarily difficult and yet the US is seeking its fifth star. Unprecedented. At the same time, if we don’t win, it’ll be seen and felt like a loss which is crazy, because our men’s team is celebrated like they’ve won the World Cup if they get out of the first round. Such a double standard but it is the legacy the women own and continue to expect from themselves.”
Three reasons for the Americans’ near-group-stage disaster presented themselves. First, injuries among players who didn’t make Vlatko Andonovski’s 23-woman World Cup squad, such as Mal Swanson and Becky Sauerbrunn, dwindled the team’s depth. A slightly depleted roster is only a minor excuse, as the squad playing in the global showcase is still more than capable of winning the World Cup. Second, the rest of the world is catching up. Teams like the Netherlands and Spain have gone from great to amazing, while the usual minnows have built up a strength that makes even the on-paper easier games more difficult. The last US-specific issue to pop up is a lack of chemistry in the team. The Stars and Stripes have had multiple years with this configuration of players to gel. We’ve seen the results of those efforts toward cohesion in the last three games.
The performance in particular against Portugal brought everything to a boiling point. While a 3-goal win over Vietnam wasn’t a demolition, the inheritance of three points overshadowed any pitfalls. Lindsey Horan single-handedly kept the USA from losing to the Dutch. Against the Portuguese, there was no safety net. A bad day for a bad performance didn’t stop the doldrums of the USWNT from coming to light. Ana Capeta’s 92-minute shot rang off the right post, beating the 5-woman US backline and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher before the woodwork saved the two-time defending Women’s World Cup titleholders. And surviving this weekend will mean beating a prime Sweden squad.
“I imagine also the critical spotlight and high expectation to win is an added stress, but I’m sure none agree more that it is part of playing on the USWNT, and maybe even a motivation,” Akers, who scored 107 goals in 155 appearances for her country, told Deadspin. “So far performance is disjointed. And maybe expecting too much out of individual play to make things happen. This also makes for a predictable attack. And for ineffective transitions and more overall pressure and workload for each player. Focus and mentality in front of goal is an issue as well. Lineup changes and more subs seem critical as well. In saying all that, the USWNT historically seems to struggle with low-pressure, bunker teams and when faced with big challenges usually rise to the occasion,” she continued. “The goal is to get out of the first round which they did, barely, and now it’s do or die. So we will see more clearly who this team is on game day versus Sweden.”
Andonovski’s lineup decisions have come under scrutiny during the World Cup and his nonchalant nature in the moments following the scoreless draw against Portugal were more of a self-own than he likely realized. Megan Rapinoe has looked sluggish in both substitute efforts thus far at the World Cup. Alex Morgan has been a step slow in all three games. Andonovski made one sub against the Netherlands, and didn’t make more than one against the Portuguese until the 84th minute. Sitting back and being reactive as opposed to proactive will lead to the USA getting eliminated if it continues.
Here’s the lineup I’d put forth against Sweden, which unfortunately doesn’t include Rose Lavelle, who is suspended for the game because of yellow-card accumulation. Naeher continues in net due to her experience and not having a better option on the bench. Naomi Girma has been the Americans’ best player at the World Cup and continues to play at center back. Pairing with her in central defense should be Alana Cook, not because Julie Ertz needs to go to the bench, but because her services are needed elsewhere. Crystal Dunn had a bad showing against Portugal, but shouldn’t lose her starting spot to Kelley O’Hara just yet. Dunn and right back Emily Fox can be swapped out easily if needed.
Back to Ertz, who should move into her natural No. 6 role and send Andi Sullivan to the bench. Lindsey Horan should pair up with Kristie Mewis in the midfield over Savannah DeMelo. And at forward, Alex Morgan playing the super-sub role would be interesting, while starting Lynn Williams, Sophia Smith, and Trinity Rodman. Staying with the status quo is what led to Carli Lloyd going into business for herself and being the catalyst for all the noise about the USWNT’s current culture.
“Feedback, criticism, praise is part of being a pro athlete,” said Akers. “And in reality, all of it is speculation and/or hype. And in truth, only the team knows what’s truly happening behind the scenes. I think also the fact there’s more noise now than ever is a positive sign of growth in the sport, but it may be challenging to adjust as that continues to increase in the women’s game.”
The best way for the USWNT to absolve itself of any disappointment is winning. While some chirps may exist if the Americans beat Sweden, most will go away. One of the tournament favorites is still four victories away from winning another World Cup. As unlikely as it appears now, one quick goal can change everything.
“All is on the line. There is room for nothing else,” Akers said. “Fuck all the PR and promotional requirements and outside distractions or opportunities off the field. Circle the wagons. Take a collective breath. Bring in some adorable dogs and watch your favorite movies together. Focus on each other. Focus on preparations. And play our USWNT game, which is heart, unity, grit, joy, and a killer uncompromising mentality that no one will outwork, be tougher, or want it more than the USA. Nothing else matters than leaving (it) all on the field. We love you and kick ass.”