There was truth in what the United States players were saying in the moments after their brush with World Cup infamy. The task for their game against Portugal on Tuesday had been to survive it and reach the knockout stage, they said, and that is precisely what they did.
Of course the U.S. players were not satisfied with a scoreless tie. They had all wanted to win the game. And of course they want to be playing better. But the job on Tuesday was to live to fight another day, and the United States woke up on Wednesday knowing it was still in the fight.
“It’s not like everyone’s sitting there like, ‘Wow, that was the most amazing performance we put together,’” the veteran defender Crystal Dunn said. “But that’s where you have to dig deep. That’s what it takes to win a World Cup. It’s not easy to do this.”
It will not get easier from here. By failing to beat Portugal, the United States dropped into second place in its group, and that means a matchup on Sunday in Melbourne against the winner of Group G, an opponent most expect to be Sweden.
Tougher games loom after that: a potential quarterfinal against Japan, and perhaps a showdown with Spain or a rematch with the Netherlands in the semifinals. But no one was talking about the semifinals on Tuesday night.
“This result was good enough to to put us through to the next round,” said the U.S. co-captain Lindsey Horan, who was substituted as her team chased a goal in the second half. “But it’s not good enough for us, and we know that.”
As player after player and even Coach Vlatko Andonovski faced questions, though, there was a pattern to their self-criticisms and their analysis of all that had gone wrong that sounded not like an attempt to convince others that all was well, but a sales pitch to convince themselves that the worst was over.
“Obviously, we want to win the games,” Megan Rapinoe said. “Obviously, we want to play great and score goals, and we didn’t do that. So we know that can be better.”
Said Andonovski: “I’m very confident with the group that we have.”
Confidence, though, is a funny thing. The other day, the Americans were confident they could win the group. Confident that their new lineup would find its footing. Confident that the goals would come.
Against Portugal, they did not. And now the only thing coming is a storm, of criticism, of worry, of second-guessing. The United States will hunker down and block that out, they said. It would not be unprecedented in her own career, Morgan noted, for the U.S. to finish second in the group stage, rediscover its magic and go on a run to the final.
But saying it and doing it are different things. On Wednesday morning, all the Americans had was a second chance. Where it goes from here, or if it goes any further than Melbourne on Sunday, is up to them.
“I know this team, and I know what we’re capable of,” Morgan said. “And just because it hasn’t clicked every moment on the field, and we’re not putting the goals in the back of the net, doesn’t mean these aren’t the right players for the job. The confidence is there. Now we just have to prove it out on the field.”