AUCKLAND, New Zealand — The fire alarms began screeching midway through the near nightmare, as the U.S. women’s national team crept dangerously close to collapse. They screeched, literally, soon after halftime here at Eden Park, while an ominous voice instructed fans to evacuate the stadium. They were false alarms, thankfully, but the irony and symbolism were unmistakable.
Because down below, on the field, and all around the USWNT, panic sirens were blaring.
Players could surely hear them later as they trudged around the field in an unemotional daze, seconds after a 0-0 draw with Portugal. A goalpost and a final whistle had spared them and permitted entry into the World Cup Round of 16. But none looked relieved. All looked the polar opposite of excited.
Because they, the back-to-back champs, had been periodically outplayed and nearly eliminated by a World Cup debutant.
They failed to win two group games for the first time ever.
They were supposedly the pre-tournament favorites, but two weeks in, their coach looks clueless and their players surpassed by European counterparts.
Speaking postgame to reporters, they attempted to feign confidence and satisfaction. But tones and facial expressions undermined it.
“We just have to get better,” head coach Vlatko Andonovski said.
And they can, players reiterated. But none could offer a convincing argument that they will.
They were poor for 45 minutes against the Netherlands and worse for 90 against Portugal. Players were asked what was wrong, pressed on why the No. 1 team in the world looked so mediocre, and their explanations ran the gamut of the entire sport.
“We need a little bit more belief when we’re playing,” captain Lindsey Horan said.
“I think we gotta be a little more ruthless in front of the net,” Rose Lavelle said.
“We could switch the point of attack more,” Megan Rapinoe said, noting that they were too predictable.
But they also couldn’t keep the ball. “We need to be more calm. We need to be more poised,” Horan said.
And “we know that they have really good dynamics, but they suffer when they don’t have the ball,” Portugal coach Francisco Neto said.
They suffered because their press, once again, was inconsistent.
“I think it’s tough when we don’t keep the ball as well as we want to,” Rapinoe said. “Things get a little bit disjointed, and you kinda feel like you’re just running back and forth all the time.”
The laundry list of problems went on. “I think picking up second balls,” Lavelle said, “and getting into those battles” was another one.
“We need to be a little bit more fluid, and I think just be a little bit more connected offensively,” Rapinoe added.
Alex Morgan chimed in: “I think it’s a little bit about decision-making on the ball. It’s a little bit about holding the ball a little bit more, expecting the pressure and not letting [the opponent] create turnovers.”
And Andonovski: “I don’t think it was in sync. … I don’t think that was a good performance altogether. Starting from the backline, midfield, forward.”
“And then the final pass,” Andonovski later added.
“It’s also being comfortable in our defensive shape for more than two or three seconds,” Morgan said. “And then it’s taking care of chances in front of goal, set pieces in particular, corners, free kicks.”
In other words, it’s almost everything. Center back Naomi Girma has been the only U.S. player who’s impressed.
So what needs to change?
“Um, honestly, I think it’s just like, uh … I’m not sure,” Kelley O’Hara said.
Andonovski seemed to pin blame on the players, as a collective. “We have to stick to our principles, we have to stick to our game model, and we have to stick to our philosophy,” he said.
When asked if the players hadn’t been doing that, he said: “Ah, I don’t know if they were not sticking to the principles altogether, but there were times where maybe we were not on the same page, or we didn’t read certain moments of the game, or certain triggers.”
And he was right, but, of course, he bears a significant portion of the blame for their incoherence.
Andonovski is an underqualified coach who has done very little to improve the USWNT. In fact, his “game model” and “principles” have dragged them away from their strengths — athleticism and grit — toward their glaring weaknesses. They are tactically unsophisticated and technically insufficient relative to their European peers. A defective youth pipeline has left them woefully unprepared for the international stage.
All of that has been abundantly clear over the past 12 months. It was clear against Spain last fall and against Japan this winter. None of what happened Tuesday, in that broader context, was remotely surprising. And so, as dominance unraveled into borderline inferiority, worry became hysteria and defeatism.
The hope, all along, was that mentalities and swagger would supersede skill and propel the USWNT back to the top of the world.
But they haven’t. Not yet, anyway.
“Hopefully we can synchronize, and get the lines in sync, for the next opponent,” Andonovski said, but that’s what it’s come to. Hope. If there’s optimism, it’s irrational. There are five days to fix 15 different problems, and this is the only reason to believe they’ll be fixed and that the USWNT will improve?
“It’s what we do,” Julie Ertz said.
“I just have blind confidence in everything around us, and in myself, and in the group,” Rapinoe said. “And it has to [improve]. It just has to.”