By Anne M. Peterson
Two-time reigning champions United States came an inch short of Women's World Cup elimination, but Portugal's late near-miss helped the Americans avoid the biggest upset in tournament history.
The Americans slipped through to the knockout round Tuesday despite a listless, uninspiring 0-0 draw against Portugal in Auckland, New Zealand. The U.S. won only one game in group play for the first time in tournament history.
In a hold-your-breath moment, the Americans came an inch away from elimination when Ana Capeta nearly scored in stoppage for Portugal. Her shot hit the right post and the Americans preserved the draw.
The tie helped the United States avoid the biggest upset in tournament history and was just enough to ensure the Americans advanced to the knockout round. The U.S. looked shaky at best in a game the Americans were expected to win.
The Americans, the most successful team ever at the World Cup with four titles, have never been eliminated in the group stage at the World Cup.
The path for the Americans also hinged on the results of the Netherlands match against Vietnam, played simultaneously in Dunedin. With a decisive 7-0 victory, the Netherlands bumped the United States from the top of Group E.
The Americans, the two-time reigning World Cup champions who are seeking an unprecedented third consecutive title, move on as the second seed.
Lynn Williams had a chance on a header in the 14th minute but Portugal goalkeeper Ines Pereira smothered it. While the U.S. controlled possession and had the better chances, the team could not finish and the game was scoreless at the break.
Rose Lavelle picked up a yellow card in the 38th minute, her second of the group stage, and she won’t be available for the team’s round of 16 match.
The frustration of the U.S. fans at Eden Park was evident at the break, when there were scattered boos among the crowd as the teams headed for the tunnel. Early in the second half, a fire alarm went off in the stadium. It turned out to be a malfunctioning sprinkler.
The United States had a free kick from a dangerous spot in the 57th minute, but Alex Morgan’s header popped up well over the goal. She put her hands to her face in exasperation.
Megan Rapinoe came in as a sub in the 61st minute, but the top scorer at the 2019 World Cup couldn’t find that elusive goal.
U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski tweaked his starting lineup for the match and started forward Williams and midfielder Lavelle for the first time at this World Cup. He had started Trinity Rodman at forward and Savannah DeMelo in the midfield for the team's first two games.
Lavelle boosted the team when she came in at halftime against the Netherlands on Thursday in Wellington when a lackluster opening half sent the Americans into the break down 1-0 to the Dutch. Lavell's corner to Lindsey Horan gave the Americans a 1-1 draw in the match.
But the energy just wasn't there against Portugal and the Americans seemed lost and unorganized for most of the match.
The United States last lost in the group stage to Sweden at the 2011 World Cup, but the Americans still advanced to the final match before losing on penalties to champion Japan.
The Americans have not needed the third and final group-stage match to learn their tournament fate since 2007, when there was a slim chance for elimination.
Going into the match against Portugal, the United States sat atop Group E, even on points with the Netherlands but holding an edge on goal differential.
The United States had won all of the previous 10 matches against Portugal. The Portuguese have never scored against the Americans.
With its decisive victory over Vietnam, the Netherlands heads to Sydney to face the second-place team from Group G, which includes Sweden, South Africa, Italy and Argentina. The United States plays the group's top team.