U.S. must ride pressure vs. Portugal in key World Cup clash

U.S. must ride pressure vs. Portugal in key World Cup clash

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Pressure has been the companion of the United States women’s national team practically from the beginning. It wasn’t enough to do well: The USWNT had to win trophies and make a statement while doing so, whether it was attracting sellout crowds in 1999 or cementing its argument for equal pay in 2019.

That stress builds throughout a tournament and will be present when the U.S. faces Portugal in its Group E finale on Tuesday (3 a.m. ET, Fox). A draw will be enough to guarantee advancement for the Americans, but merely progressing isn’t the objective; topping the group is. That way a possible round-of-16 matchup against third-ranked Sweden can be avoided.

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Achieving that means not only defeating the Selecao das Quinas, but scoring enough goals to keep the Netherlands — which faces eliminated Vietnam at the same time — in second place in Group E on goal differential, the first tiebreaker. (With a win and a draw, the U.S. has a two-point edge in goal differential going into the game.)

There is a way for the U.S. to advance with a loss, but that would require Vietnam beating the Dutch by a big enough margin that the U.S. would maintain its edge in goal differential. That isn’t happening.

Then there is the nightmare scenario. Due to the field being expanded to 32 teams, the bailout of a third-place team advancing to the knockout rounds is no longer there: Teams must finish in the top two of a group in order to move on. A loss by the U.S. to Portugal would almost certainly end their tournament, and mark, by far, the Americans’ worst finish at a World Cup.

U.S. manager Vlatko Andonovski insists he won’t be watching the scoreboard or focusing too intently on anything that doesn’t concern his team.

“We don’t want to look two, three, four steps forward. It’s the first step,” he said. “Let’s make sure that we get in the next stage, because if we start thinking too far ahead, our chance may never come.”

The USWNT’s rather ho-hum performances so far in this competition have created a vibe that while elimination is highly unlikely — the U.S. has beaten Portugal 10 times in 10 attempts, never conceding a goal — it is within the realm of possibility. It wouldn’t be the first time that a set-piece goal or a controversial call propelled an underdog to an upset of a presumed heavyweight at a World Cup. That has ratcheted up the intensity and reminded the U.S. of what’s at stake.

“Of course there’s a little bit of anxiousness anytime there’s a result that needs to be had, that has a little bit of feeling to it, but I think that’s exciting,” forward Megan Rapinoe said. “I think everybody knows that too. Everybody’s like, ‘OK, we have to perform better and we have to get this result.'”

Handling such situations is something that has been passed down from generation to generation on the USWNT, making the pressure more of an ally and less of a burden. It explains why the U.S. has won four World Cups as well as four Olympic titles, with the longest stretch of time between major trophies being five years. On a team with 14 players experiencing their first World Cup, knowledge transfer is vital.

“We go into these moments like, ‘Hell yeah, this is exactly where we want to be,'” Rapinoe said.

Getting through this match, and scoring enough goals to finish atop the group, will require the U.S. attack to up its game. The forward trio of Sophia Smith, Alex Morgan and Trinity Rodman has lacked cohesion for long stretches this summer. Smith and Rodman play more centrally with their clubs, and their tendency has been to slide into similar positions with the USWNT. Granted, width can also be provided by full-backs Crystal Dunn and Emily Fox, but that requires the U.S. maintaining possession well enough to give it time to get forward.

Andonovski could mix things up by bringing Rapinoe, Lynn Williams or Alyssa Thompson into the mix. But Rapinoe noted that the team needs “better positional discipline.” Speed, something the U.S. forwards have in abundance, isn’t enough if the attack is congested or predictable.

“I think we have to be a little bit more disciplined, but also play a little bit more of that cat and mouse,” she said. “I think if we keep the field spread and keep our width and keep threatening in behind, then things will open up quite a bit more and we can play-make underneath. You can’t take everything away.”

That requirement would point to Rose Lavelle being on the field from the start. So far, she has made two substitute appearances, but the uptick in attacking tempo each time she has entered a match has been evident. Even if she can’t go the full 90 minutes, her presence adds some heft to the U.S. attack.

The Americans also figure to have an advantage on set pieces. The goal that Portugal conceded against the Netherlands came off a corner, and after Lindsey Horan scored against the Dutch from a similar opportunity, the U.S. will be looking for more of the same. Lavelle, with her ability to put set-piece deliveries on a dime, figures to be impactful in those scenarios as well.

However, their opponents will be no pushovers; Portugal’s women’s program has made significant strides under manager Francisco Neto. While the team hasn’t been as upwardly mobile over the past decade as, say, Spain or the Netherlands, the past six years have seen Portugal qualify for the women’s Euros for the first two times in its history and make its World Cup debut this year. Over that time frame, Portugal’s FIFA World Ranking has improved from 42nd to 21st. That doesn’t mean Andonovski expects Portugal to play an expansive attacking game; rather, it will look closer to Vietnam than the Netherlands.

“If we analyze Portugal in the last few games that they played, they are a lot more conservative than aggressive,” Andonovski said. He added that Portugal, in their recent games against top teams, were “looking to get their results on a couple of chances they create. We expect nothing less. [Tuesday], we think that they’re going to be organized defensively, and they’re going to look to get results off counterattacks. And obviously, it will be our responsibility to neutralize any of those.”

With the U.S. expected to have the edge in possession, the Americans will have to be wary of attackers like Jessica Silva and attacking midfielder Kika Nazareth, as well as live wires off the bench like Ana Capeta, all of whom are dangerous in transition. But given the fact that Portugal likely will need to win the match in order to advance, it will have to become more adventurous at some point. Game management will be of utmost importance for Portugal.

“[Tuesday] we’re going to go, more or less, for the balance. Being organized in defending, but also valuing ball possession when we have it,” Neto said during his prematch news conference. “There will be moments when we have the ball, and these moments are going to be crucial for us to create some dangers against the U.S. team.”

Balance will be important for the U.S. as well. The Americans will need to be aggressive, but with intelligence. That way, the USWNT can meet the moment once again.

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