The possibility is almost unfathomable.
At every previous Women’s World Cup, the United States has reached at least the semifinals. Getting eliminated before the knockout round even begins? For one of the greatest dynasties in the history of international sports, the very idea could seem downright preposterous.
Yet that’s exactly what will happen if Portugal upsets the Americans in both squads’ final group-stage match here Tuesday (coverage begins at 1 a.m. ET, with kickoff at 3 a.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app.). While there’s technically a chance the U.S. could still advance with a defeat, it would need Vietnam to tie or beat the Netherlands in their Group E finale. That’s almost certainly not going to happen.
A U.S. loss to Portugal isn’t nearly as farfetched. By the American players’ own admission, the two-time defending World Cup champions haven’t performed up to their ability so far in this tournament.
After the USWNT rallied for a 1-1 draw with the Dutch on Wednesday, co-captain Alex Morgan suggested that being forced to claw back from a halftime deficit against the Oranje could be the wakeup call the title favorites need heading into the business end of the tournament.
Vlatko Andonovski sounded even more confident.
“I think we are just going to get better from game to game, and we are going to be a lot more efficient as well,” the U.S. coach said.
USWNT fans sure better hope so.
When the Women’s World Cup field was expanded from 24 to 32 teams for this event, a smattering of ugly score lines was expected. This was by design. The idea, FIFA VP Victor Montagliani told FOX Sports, was to jumpstart the overall level of the women’s game by exposing more teams to the highest level of competition for the first time.
But more than halfway through the first round, the blowouts have been few. This World Cup has been far more competitive that anyone could’ve predicted.
Newcomers such as Haiti and Ireland have given genuine contenders fits. Those two teams and fellow debutants Portugal and the Philippines remain in contention for the round of 16 heading into their final group-stage match.
“The teams that are ranked anywhere between 15 and 40 are the ones that have grown probably the most and are the ones that have made this tournament interesting,” Andonovski said earlier in the week. “Whether it’s Nigeria or Jamaica or South Africa, Philippines – these are the teams that actually show how much [the] women’s soccer game has grown.”
Just ask the co-hosts.
Despite playing on home soil in font of huge crowds comprised almost entirely of their own raucous supporters, Australia and New Zealand each lost their last game, leaving both on the brink of elimination. (At the previous eight Women’s World Cups, no host nation has ever failed to reach the knockout phase.)
Australia’ loss to Nigeria in particular should have alarm bells going off inside the USWNT’s camp.
Even without injured star forward Sam Kerr, the 10th-ranked Matildas were heavily favored to beat the No. 46 Super Falcons in Melbourne. But as in their narrow opening-game victory over the Irish, Australia didn’t look at all cohesive against a less talented but highly motivated foe. A second half miscommunication between defender Alana Kennedy and goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold led to the goal that ultimately sealed the Matildas’ 3-2 defeat.
In a low-scoring sport, one mistake in a pivotal match can be fatal — especially for a team already playing at a level below the sum of its parts.
That’s what makes Tuesday’s match so dangerous for the Americans. Portugal, FIFA’s No. 21-ranked nation, is no pushover. They’re good enough to punish any error the U.S. makes.
The Portuguese lost 1-0 to the Netherlands then beat Vietnam 2-0, and they have everything to play for against the U.S.
Strange things can happen in a single game. Fans of the U.S. men know it all too well. Needing just a tie to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, the USMNT never recovered from a first-half own goal versus already eliminated Trinidad and Tobago and missed the main event for the first time in decades.
So, while much of the focus in the lead up to this contest has centered on whether or not the U.S. women can score enough times to finish on top of Group E, simply winning has to be the bigger priority.
It’s fair to assume the USWNT can do that. Only a fool would bet against the five-time champs, and the Americans’ status as the standard bearer of the women’s soccer has certainly earned them the benefit of the doubt.
A first-round exit is almost unimaginable. But if the U.S. isn’t far better against Portugal than it has been through two games here so far, the uncomfortable truth is that it’s not impossible, either.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.
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