Despite myriad problems, the USWNT is still alive at the World Cup — and that's enough

AUCKLAND, New ZealandAlex Morgan wore a stern, slightly peeved expression as she navigated the postgame media minefield. It was roughly 30 minutes after the near-disaster, after a 0-0 draw with Portugal here at the 2023 World Cup. She was asked about disappointment, and about how to fix the U.S. women’s national team. She acknowledged shortcomings, and later “owned” them. She rattled off a list of necessary improvements.

But then, with one final question in a frigid hallway underneath Eden Park, she was asked to look ahead, toward the Round of 16 and her upcoming opponents.

“Do you think Sweden are favorites in the next round?” a European reporter queried.

“No,” Morgan said bluntly.

Then she walked away.

And she was right.

For all its problems, the USWNT is still favored over Sweden on Sunday in Melbourne (5 a.m. ET, Fox). In fact, according to most bookmakers, it is still the second-favorite to win the entire World Cup — along with Spain, just behind England. Its odds have dipped significantly since the start of the tournament, since an inconsistent performance against the Netherlands and an alarming one against Portugal. But it still has talent; and it is still the USWNT.

What’s the reason to believe they can rise to the knockout-stage occasion?

“It's what we do,” defender Julie Ertz said Tuesday.

There are, of course, many reasons to believe that they won’t. But lost amid 48 hours of panic were a few simple truths. Sure, the U.S. didn’t score from open play against the Dutch or Portugal. But you don’t have to score from open play to win World Cup elimination games. You actually don’t even have to score, period.

Knockout soccer is notoriously cagey and fluky. It might suit a USWNT that struggles to control games, but has a history of pouncing on moments. Frankly, it can suit any team that simply participates. Soccer, as a sport, on any stage, is riddled with randomness.

The U.S. team looks on during the FIFA Women's World Cup match against Portugal on Aug. 1. (Ulrik Pedersen/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)
The U.S. team looks on during the FIFA Women's World Cup match against Portugal on Aug. 1. (Ulrik Pedersen/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

That randomness also contributed to perceptions of the USWNT throughout the group stage. Some analytics hinted that the Americans were and are far better than results suggested. They created 3.0 combined Expected Goals in their two draws while conceding only 0.7. For all their dysfunction in possession, they still created plenty of chances.

Expected Goals (xG) are a measure of chance creation — of quality and quantity. They’re an inexact measure, but a growing body of evidence has shown that they are a better predictor of future goals than past goals are. In other words, the U.S. failed to finish those chances — they converted 7.8 xG into 4 goals throughout the group stage, the largest underperformance of any team at this World Cup — but Alex Morgan and Sophia Smith and Lynn Williams didn’t just become subpar forwards overnight. If the chances keep coming, chances are that their finishing will revert to the mean — at least.

“We had opportunities,” Williams said Thursday, some 40 hours after the Portugal goose-egg. “We had moments. And it's just capitalizing on them. That's the game of soccer sometimes. Sometimes it goes your way and sometimes it doesn't.”

“And even when we haven't played our best soccer,” Williams noted, “we've only had one shot on goal [against us]. Unluckily for us, it went in, but it's been one shot [on target] in three games.”

None of that invalidates worry about the USWNT’s very real problems. And upon rewatch of the Portugal match, the xG totals (2.1-0.4 in favor of the U.S. on Tuesday) seem deceptively kind.

But all of the worry is relative — relative to outsize expectations. No, the U.S. is not the three-peat favorite that it was two weeks ago; but yes, it is a contender.

And yes, all the other contenders have problems too. Spain just flopped against Japan. England just lost its midfield general — after already losing its defensive captain and star forward — to injury. Germany just lost to Colombia. Even Sweden, which swept through Group G, got outplayed for lengthy stretches by South Africa and Italy.

So the USWNT is “not panicking,” as Williams said. “We're gonna move forward,” captain Lindsey Horan added. “It's a new tournament starting now.”

Some flaws seem unfixable in a four-day window between uber-intense games, but, after a detailed, critical, at times scathing discussion of all those flaws on a Wednesday recap show, former USWNT forward Tobin Heath landed at the only unquestionable conclusion.

“The U.S. women’s national team is still in this tournament,” Heath said. “They can still win this World Cup.”