Holders the United States survived a huge scare to reach the last 16 of the Women’s World Cup on Tuesday after a 0-0 draw against Portugal, who were unlucky not to claim a sensational win at Eden Park that would have taken them through instead.
The USA struggled to impose themselves against opponents ranked 21st in the world and appearing at their first World Cup, and Portugal almost won the game in injury time when substitute Ana Capeta hit the post.
Holding on for the draw means Vlatko Andonovski’s side finish in second place in Group E.
The Netherlands go through as group winners after a 7-0 demolition of a Vietnam side who were beaten just 3-0 by the Americans in their first match at the tournament.
That means pre-tournament favorites the USA will move to Australia to play a last-16 tie on Sunday against the winners of Group G, in all likelihood Sweden.
Nothing about their performance here in front of almost 41,000 in Auckland, or in their two previous matches, suggests the United States will find it easy against a side who finished third at the last World Cup.
“We are not happy with the performance we put out there but at the same time we are moving on,” said Alex Morgan.
“This is not the first time in my career that we have moved on in second in the group.
“Now it is about coming back together, knowing that we have the pieces to go all the way, but putting all that together.”
In fact, it is just the second time in Women’s World Cup history that the USA have failed to top their group, although on the last occasion, in 2011, they reached the final before losing on penalties to Japan.
They had never before won just one group game, and the regression from four years ago in France is striking.
That time they won all three matches in the first phase, rattling in 18 goals without reply.
Andonovski has insisted a youthful new team will need time to find its feet, but an urgent step-up will be required if they are not to be eliminated early in the knockout phase.
The US has never before failed to reach the semifinals in the eight prior editions of the World Cup.
Lavelle handed start
Andonovski made two changes from the 1-1 draw with the Netherlands, with Rose Lavelle getting a first start at the tournament.
Savannah DeMelo made way for her, while Lynn Williams was brought in on the right wing as Trinity Rodman dropped out.
Portugal had to win to go through but played as if there was no pressure on them at all, with Andreia Norton shooting over early on and the lively Jessica Silva dragging a shot wide from a good position soon after.
They had more of the possession, and the much-fancied Americans struggled to match the intensity or aggression of a Portugal team who had beaten Vietnam 2-0 last time out.
Starting a World Cup match for the first time, Williams found the going tough but did have her team’s best chances in the opening half, including a snap-shot in stoppage time that was saved by goalkeeper Ines Pereira.
The US started better in the second half but Andonovski was alarmed enough to call for Megan Rapinoe, the veteran replacing Sophia Smith just after the hour.
Yet clear chances remained at a minimum and there were some nervy moments, like when Naomi Girma was booked for a panicked pull on Silva late on.
There was more panic in the US defense in the first minute of injury time when Capeta, who had just come on, smashed a shot off the upright as the holders grimly held on.
“I truly believed it was going to be a goal and I was starting to think of what I could do to help my players if we were winning 1-0,” said Portugal coach Francisco Neto.
“It was a huge opportunity for us but unfortunately we go home tomorrow.”
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.
For feedback, complaints, or inquiries, contact us.