United States women’s soccer has a catalog of heroes — players like Abby Wambach, Brandi Chastain, Mia Hamm.
They inspired generations of soccer fanatics, many of whom are playing for the U.S. women’s national team today. The 1991 and 1999 World Cup champions forged a legacy to be proud of. But instead of beaming with joy, when the camera panned to Hamm in the crowd during the USWNT’s 0-0 draw with Portugal on Tuesday, the former player was visibly nervous. With her mouth formed into a tense grimace, Hamm wrung her hands.
And in households across the United States, in the cover of night, fans likely did the same.
This wasn’t the dominant U.S. women’s soccer we’ve grown accustomed to. That team has yet to appear at the 2023 World Cup. Instead, after the Netherlands outdid them with a 7-0 win over Vietnam in the other Group E finale, the USWNT finished as runners-up and eked out a spot in the Round of 16.
There was a savior in the draw, just not one that can ever join the former players in a World Cup crowd. It was a goal post.
Two minutes into stoppage time, Ana Capeta got behind the defense and fired a shot that nearly eliminated the USWNT. It would have put the U.S. at risk of losing in back-to-back Olympics and World Cups for the first time since 2000 and 2003.
Instead, the shot ricocheted off the goal post. It was an inanimate object that saved the USWNT’s World Cup.
Portugal was this close 😬 pic.twitter.com/UMIZnAqyib— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) August 1, 2023
Portugal was this close 😬 pic.twitter.com/UMIZnAqyib
The United States moves on. That’s a positive.
The United States did not look like a team worthy of moving on. That’s a negative.
No matter how it happened, it happened.
“[Portugal] made it frustrating for us,” midfielder Rose Lavelle told FOX Sports after the match. “We were disappointed in ourselves, but we have another game to focus on. We made it through. So we put our energy toward that now.”
Now, the squad has a chance to erase the woes of group play. A win over Sweden, their likely opponent in the knockout stage, could do that. But it won’t be easy, especially without Lavelle, who will serve a one-game yellow card suspension in the Round of 16.
Sweden blew through its group, beating South Africa 2-1 and claiming a lopsided 5-0 victory over Italy. Their final game of group play comes Wednesday against last-place Argentina.
The last time the U.S. played Sweden was in 2021 at the Tokyo Olympics. Sweden won that match 3-0, and questions about USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski started to swirl, just as they have at this World Cup. But the players aren’t thinking about that right now.
“Our only focus is on the next game and getting that done,” said U.S. veteran Kelley O’Hara, who was caught on camera delivering a fiery message to the team in the postgame huddle. “Just continuing to be the team we know we can be.”
Where is that team?
The talent is there. Veterans like Alex Morgan, Lindsey Horan and Crystal Dunn. Rising stars like Sophia Smith, Trinity Rodman and Naomi Girma. But other than a few fleeting moments here and there, that talent has yet to translate into cohesive play and decisive results at the World Cup.
It has to in the knockout stage. Opportunities will be harder to come by, and the U.S. has already missed on its fair share of chances. They could have put away the Netherlands. They had shots to beat Portugal. But instead, they are leaving group play in second place with one win and two ties.
“That one chance might be the game-changer,” Horan, the savior in the USWNT’s previous game, told FOX Sports. “I think today, it was lacking just a little bit. We had our opportunities in front of the goal, even like two yards out. We have to finish. And we will. We are going to move forward to the next round and it’s going to come.”
Someone has to capitalize on those opportunities against Sweden. They have no other choice. To have a chance at winning their third straight World Cup title, the United States needs a real hero, not a goal post.
Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.