The US Women’s National Team was a post width away from exiting the Women’s World Cup at the group stage, but survived a late scare to earn a goalless draw against Portugal and reach the last 16.
With the game hanging in the balance, substitute Ana Capeta had a glorious chance to earn Portugal a famous win in the closing stages, but her effort struck the post with goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher completely helpless.
Defeat for the USWNT – a team aiming for a third consecutive world title – would have ended its participation in the tournament.
The Netherlands’ 7-0 win over Vietnam means the Dutch finish top of Group E on seven points, two ahead of the US. It is the first time in the history of the competition that the USWNT has won just one group stage match.
On almost any other occasion, a 0-0 draw against the two-time defending champion would have been a cause for celebration, but at full time many of Portugal’s players fell to their knees in tears as the reality of their World Cup exit began to sink in.
When the dust settles and the pain subsides, Portugal’s players will feel confident the future of women’s soccer in the country is bright after pushing the Netherlands all the way in a narrow 1-0 defeat and then drawing with the US.
For the USWNT, however, there will be serious questions asked about the team’s performances in the group stages.
The squad has 14 players appearing at a World Cup for the first time and the new-look team has struggled to find any kind of cohesion throughout the tournament. The performance against Portugal was the most disjointed the team had looked so far.
“It’s tough to be second,” US forward Alex Morgan told FIFA after the match. “We wanted to go through first. This team gave everything, we just didn’t put the ball in the back of the net.
“In the last few minutes we just had to hold it down – we had to get the result and move on.”
Morgan admitted the team had been below its best so far in Australia and New Zealand, “but we’re looking forward to working on the improvements that we need to make and looking at the next round,” she added.
“Whether we’re playing Sweden or whoever it’s going to be. We’ll be paying attention to tomorrow because we’ve got to bounce on this.”
On the brink
Expectations were high going into the game and hundreds of US fans were in fine voice in Auckland, New Zealand as they marched towards Eden Park ahead of kick off.
Chants and songs of “U-S-A,” “Oh When the Saints” and “America the Beautiful” filled the air as other fans danced in the ticket queues to a jazz band.
But that enthusiasm wasn’t replicated by the American players on the pitch.
The opening exchanges gave an early insight into how the game would unfold. It was Portugal which created the first chance of the match, but Jessica Silva – the hub of the Portuguese attack – dragged her effort wide of the far post.
Portugal’s players were doing a brilliant job of disrupting the US, snapping into challenges and barely allowing them a second to settle on the ball.
Morgan managed to fashion the US’ best chance of the first half, wriggling free on the touchline to cut the ball back for Lynn Williams, who had two stabs at the ball but prodded her second effort over the crossbar.
The USWNT players would no doubt have been aware of the Netherlands’ 5-0 lead over Vietnam at half time, which meant the Dutch leapfrogged them into first place in Group E.
Despite getting more of a foothold in the game as the second half progressed, the US was still unable to craft any clear-cut opportunities in front of goal. Half-chances fell to Morgan and Williams, but Portugal was able to clear the ball without much trouble.
Even as the game entered the closing stages, Portugal looked just as likely as the US – if not more so – to snatch a late winner.
Some hesitant defending in the USWNT’s back line allowed Capeta in behind as the game entered stoppage time, but to the relief of Americans everywhere her effort struck the foot of the post and bounced away to safety.
“We had our World Cup on the line,” veteran Megan Rapinoe admitted afterwards. “Of course those moments are going to be intense.
“We’re thrilled to be going on to the next stage. That’s exactly what we wanted out of this match ultimately, is to have another one. On to the round of 16 – excited to see who we play.”