Group stage takeaways: Can the U.S. still win the Women’s World Cup?

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AUCKLAND, New Zealand — It has been a difficult Women’s World Cup for the U.S. so far, to say the least.

Heading into the tournament with confidence sky-high and a super-talented roster, results have yet to match the lofty expectations: a 3-0 win over Vietnam was followed by a 1-1 draw vs. the Netherlands (in which they had to come from behind) and then a nervy 0-0 draw with Portugal in order to escape Group E and reach the round of 16.

Given their lack of dominance, the vibes around the team have swiftly soured and fans have gone from dreaming of a historic third straight World Cup title to worrying about whether they’ll be eliminated in the round of 16 against Sweden on Sunday (5 a.m. ET, Fox), which would be their worst performance at this competition.

As we’re on the ground in New Zealand and have been following the USWNT throughout the tournament, we’re sharing their thoughts about the turbulence of the group stage and whether this team can still be considered favorites to win it all on Aug. 20.


Who is to blame for the USWNT’s poor performances in the World Cup group stage?

Murray: Well, it’s clear that the players haven’t been performing well on the whole. The players’ finishing has been atrocious across the board, they manage to pass the ball out of bounds or lose possession without pressure, and they’ve struggled to close down the spaces exploited by the Netherlands and Portugal.

But I’ve seen enough of these players to know that they are good, and they’re better than they’ve played so far. When I see this team, I see 11 players who look like they’ve never played together, look unprepared for what they need to do, and have no collective identity for how they should play. That falls on coach Vlatko Andonovski.

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His roster selection has been baffling to me. This is an unbalanced team that doesn’t fit together; it’s evident in attack, for instance, where everyone naturally tries to dribble into the middle and shoot, while no one provides any width or service. And injuries aside, Andonovski didn’t do enough to accumulate reps and build chemistry with one core group, instead making last-minute surprise choices, undermining years of call-ups.

Even more than that, it feels like this team isn’t well-drilled on what everyone should be doing. If the Americans have a tactical plan, I can’t see it.

Carlisle: Certainly there’s enough blame to go around, but I keep coming back to the players. It isn’t Andonovski who is over-hitting passes or putting them straight out of bounds. It isn’t the manager who is missing the target when presented with good looks in front of goal. It isn’t Andonovski who is making mistakes in initiating the press, or losing individual battles.

For all of the talk about 14 players on the roster experiencing their first World Cup, outside of Savannah DeMelo and Alyssa Thompson, the vast majority of these players have been to numerous camps. Trinity Rodman had 17 caps coming into the tournament. Sophia Smith had 29, while Andi Sullivan had 44. The list goes on. The team has also been together for five weeks, and that is just in this latest camp.

You would think they would have absorbed the tactical plan by now, but they don’t look in sync at all. Is some of that on Andonovski? Absolutely.

I agree that the roster construction seemed flawed from the beginning, with a lack of depth at positions like center back and striker. But Tierna Davidson wasn’t getting on the field in this tournament, and neither was Ashley Hatch.

Where I think Andonovski also deserves criticism is his odd reluctance to use his bench. Sure, he used five subs against Portugal, but four of those were in the 84th minute or later — hardly enough time to be impactful.

I do think the pressure has weighed heavily on this group. Now that the group stage is over, the Americans can play with more freedom. They certainly won’t be expected to blow every team out 5-0, but the players need to adapt to the intensity of a World Cup in a hurry.

Who is your best USWNT player of the group stage?

Murray: In a group stage that has been defined by inconsistency, the only player who has bucked that trend is Naomi Girma. The 23-year-old center back has been dependable and smart, almost never putting a foot wrong.

Unfortunately, when your best player has been a center back, that is a sign that things are not going well, especially for an attack-oriented team like the U.S. More attacking players who did well at points struggled at others, including Smith, Rose Lavelle and Lindsey Horan.

Carlisle: I would agree that Girma has been the USWNT’s best player. She has been composed on the ball and used her speed well to cover the space in behind the defense. That has been a critical component for a team struggling to convert chances. That will also stand it in good stead against Sweden.

Which USWNT player has disappointed you the most?

Carlisle: I’d say Smith. Sure, she got two goals in the opening game, but that was against one of the weaker teams (Vietnam) in the tournament. She hasn’t built on that to any degree and she’s struggling mightily on the ball, failing to connect on passes and dribbling into trouble.

It was telling that the chance she set up for Trinity Rodman late in the Netherlands match was one of the few times she looked decisive in her decision-making, releasing the ball after just two touches. She needs to recognize those situations better.

Murray: I totally agree. Smith was my player to watch for the tournament, and I think we all expected her to tear her way through New Zealand and Australia. But I think (1) we’re seeing why she plays as a striker for her club; her service on the wing hasn’t been good and she’s better getting on the end of balls, and (2) she has looked indecisive and not at her sharpest. She holds on to the ball way too long, often killing promising attacks.

What do you make of the criticism after the Portugal game that the U.S. players seemed too content with their performance?

Murray: I saw the video clips of the players visiting with fans and looking happy after the game, but as someone on the ground here, I can tell you the players do not seem happy with how things are going. Whenever they meet the media, there’s a sense of discomfort when the players are confronted with how badly they are playing.

I don’t get the sense this World Cup has been much fun for the players so far, certainly not in comparison to other tournaments I’ve covered. Even when we’ve asked players what they do in their downtime, they say it’s recovery, coffee and meals — there are no cat café visits, a la the 2019 World Cup in France.

Indeed, this feels much more like 2015 than 2019. In 2019, it was a party. In 2015, the players knew they were playing poorly and hinted that they knew it when asked by the media, but instead they offered only platitudes and a brave face. It wasn’t until I was doing reporting for my book that I got a more blunt, honest assessment. I expect what the players are saying publicly is different than the conversations behind the scenes. If not, then fans have reason to worry.

There is the concern that the Americans may take for granted that, as the No. 1-ranked reigning world champions, they will win. Parading to matches in designer suits and doing podcasts during the tournament certainly don’t help the optics, but confidence — even despite evidence to the contrary — has always helped this team, not hurt it.

Carlisle: Criticism comes with the territory, though I suspect this is the brightest spotlight some of these players have ever encountered. I also think the players know precisely how poorly they’re playing. There was not a person who spoke in Tuesday’s postmatch mixed zone who thought they played well. “It needs to be better,” was the general consensus. I do think there was a reluctance to get into specific criticisms in that kind of forum. Oh, to be a fly on the wall during the film sessions ahead of the Sweden match.

It also depends on the extent to which you believe how impermeable the team’s “bubble” is. I can’t help but think some of the outside criticism is seeping through.

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Carlisle: USWNT will have to up game considerably to beat Sweden

Jeff Carlisle reacts to Sweden’s 2-0 win vs. Argentina which sets up a last-16 clash with USWNT.

What, if anything, should the USWNT change before facing Sweden in the round of 16 on Sunday?

Carlisle: I’d say it’s probably too late for a change in formation to, say, a 4-4-2. But I think going to a full-bore “double pivot” in midfield should be considered. It would give Sullivan some help and get her on the ball a bit more. I’m on record as saying Julie Ertz is needed in the back, and I’m sticking with that.

I do think putting Smith at striker and benching Alex Morgan is worth exploring, as it would get Smith in the role where she’s most comfortable. Do you want to reward her for subpar play, though?

Then there’s the question of how you replace Lavelle, who is suspended after picking up her second yellow card of the tournament on Tuesday. DeMelo is probably the preferred option, but has Ashley Sanchez‘s stock sunk so low that she can’t even get on the field? I suspect she’ll have some part to play against Sweden.

Murray: I have also thought that switching from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 formation would fit this personnel better. A two-striker system would be closer to what the likes of Smith and Rodman play for their clubs, and it would give the midfield some desperately needed help with an extra player.

Given that the midfield being overrun and a lack of finishing are the USWNT’s two biggest problems, it could help, and it wouldn’t be without precedent, either.

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Andonovski: To question the team’s willingness to win is ‘insane’

Vlatko Andonovski reacts to Carli Lloyd and the media’s criticism after USWNT game vs. Portugal.

Speaking of the 2015 World Cup, where the USWNT played terribly but still won the trophy: Then-coach Jill Ellis changed the team’s formation ahead of the semifinal, abandoning her preferred 4-4-2 and switching to something more akin to a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-1-1, depending on the phase of play. That semifinal and the final were the USWNT’s two best games all tournament.

It felt at the time like Ellis stumbled onto this solution — a yellow card suspension to central midfielder Lauren Holiday forced Ellis to take a chance on Morgan Brian, who was sensational in her place. One byproduct of the move was it freed fellow central midfielder Carli Lloyd to be a bigger scoring threat. So once Holiday returned, Ellis changed her entire system in the following game to get Holiday and Brian on the field together while pushing Lloyd up higher.

Will Andonovski be willing to make such a bold change? Well, Lavelle is suspended for the next match and Horan is on a yellow, so whether a change in formation works or fails spectacularly, he’d be able to justify it. My concern is that the Americans don’t seem to understand their roles in the system they’ve been playing for months, so I have my doubts about how well they will figure out a new system. That said, if this team is as talented as we think it is, just putting the players in better spots to succeed could be enough.

So … will the U.S. win the Women’s World Cup? How far can it go?

Carlisle: It’s knockout-round soccer now, so anything is possible, but based on what I’ve seen so far, I’d say no, this team won’t win it.

Before the tournament, my optimism was based on the fact that a lot of the favorites were at less than full strength. Without a full complement of players, I thought it would be difficult to knock the U.S. off. But other teams have ridden the injury bug far better than the USWNT. England has been without four key players. France was in a similar position. They’ve both risen above those challenges.

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USWNT ‘survives’ group stage, but it won’t be enough vs. Sweden

Alexis Nunes reports from Auckland as the USWNT advances through the World Cup group stage in underwhelming fashion.

Yes, the lesson of 2015, when the U.S. struggled in its first five games only to come alive and win the whole thing, is instructive. But that team seemed to have a lot more game-changers (Lloyd, Hope Solo, Becky Sauerbrunn) in their ranks. I’m not seeing that in this team, at least so far.

I just have a hard time seeing the Americans get past Sweden. But if they do, history may well repeat itself.

Murray: I agree: I wasn’t as confident about the USWNT going into the tournament, and I’m even less confident now. Portugal, a team that needed an intercontinental playoff just to qualify for its first Women’s World Cup, looked better than the U.S. in their 0-0 draw much of the time.

When I think about the USWNT facing Sweden, I have flashbacks of the 2021 Olympics and how terrible the Americans looked in their opening high-stakes game of the Andonovski era — and how good Sweden looked. Do I think the U.S. now is much better than it was in 2021? Not really.

The USWNT has never failed to reach the semifinals in a World Cup, and this feels like it’ll be a historic World Cup for the Americans for all the wrong reasons.

Caitlin Murray has covered the USWNT over several World Cups and is the author of “The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer.”

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