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USWNT is in trouble at 2023 World Cup if they don't turn things around — and fast

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — What the U.S. women are saying publicly better not be what they’re feeling privately.

The reaction to yet another lackluster World Cup performance, with similar mistakes to the previous two, was largely unbothered. They’re into the knockout rounds. How they got there, and how it looked, seemed beside the point.

If that isn’t a masterful acting job by the USWNT, if this is what they really think, then this team is irrationally confident.

“Because I know this team and I know what we’re capable of,” Alex Morgan said when asked after Tuesday’s scoreless draw with Portugal why she expects anything different going forward. “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.”

Well, yeah. Unless the USWNT finds a way to turn things around – fast – they’re making a very different kind of history than they came here intending.

A team that has designs on becoming the first, men’s or women’s, to win three consecutive World Cup titles, came inches from being eliminated in the group stage for the first time ever at a World Cup or Olympics. Had Ana Capeta’s corker in the first minute of stoppage time not ricocheted off the post, it’d be Portugal that would be moving on, not the U.S.

As it was, the two-time defending champions wound up second in their group for only the second time since the tournament began in 1991. Granted, the USWNT reached the final the other time it happened, in 2011, but this is the first time the U.S. managed to win only one game in the group stage.

U.S. forward Alex Morgan (13) reacts after a play during the second half a group stage match against Portugal during the 2023 FIFA World Cup at Eden Park. The Americans advanced with a 0-0 draw against Portugal.
U.S. forward Alex Morgan (13) reacts after a play during the second half a group stage match against Portugal during the 2023 FIFA World Cup at Eden Park. The Americans advanced with a 0-0 draw against Portugal.

Oh, and it’s a good bet the Americans will play old nemesis Sweden in the round of 16 on Sunday. That’d be the same Sweden that pummeled the USWNT 3-0 two summers ago in the opening game of the Tokyo Olympics, a tournament where the Americans also looked out of sync and unprepared to meet the moment.

"I just have blind confidence in everything around us and in myself and in the group. And it has to," Megan Rapinoe said when asked if things will get better. "It just has to."

But does it? And what gives them confidence it will?

The days of the USWNT steamrolling through any tournament are over. The game has gotten too competitive, as we’ve seen time and again at this World Cup. Even the best teams are bound to have a game, sometimes two, when their level dips. The World Cup is a grind, and to expect even the world’s No. 1 team to be at its peak in every game over five weeks is simply unrealistic.

What is troubling about the USWNT’s performance so far is that these are not new problems. Finishing has long been an issue, one that was largely papered over by Mallory Swanson’s scoring tear before she injured her knee in April.

After both the win over Vietnam and the tie against the Netherlands, the Americans bemoaned the chances they didn’t convert and talked about needing to get in sync. Each time, though, they said the flaws were fixable, that it would take only tweaks here and there to get everybody on the same page and get things right.

And yet, here they are again.

“I don’t think that was a good performance altogether,” USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski allowed. “I don’t think we were able to solve the problems the opponent was presenting. There were moments where we did and it looked good, but those moments were very few and not enough to be able to walk out of here with several goals.

“Hopefully we can synchronize and get the lines in sync for the next opponent.”

But hey, they got through the group so it’s all cool!

“That was our goal, make it out of the group,” said Naomi Girma, one of the few players who showed the passion and energy a game like this required. “Obviously we want to win our group every time. But it’s a tournament. You survive and advance.”

Again, these might be the team’s public talking points. After the lackluster performance against the Netherlands, Andi Sullivan acknowledged the players get “direct and clear and honest and loud” with one another. And it seemed telling that, after the game ended and the USWNT was huddled in the middle of the field, it was four-time World Cup veteran Kelley O’Hara who addressed her teammates.

Did so quite animatedly, too.

But this team seems to lack the ruthlessness that has been a trademark of the USWNT. It’s not enough to talk about wanting to win and being able to put it all together. At some point, they have to show they can do it.

And so far, they have not.

“I think we need a little bit more belief when we’re playing,” captain Lindsey Horan said. “We need to be more calm. We need to be more poised.”

If they’re telling each other what they were saying publicly after the game, they need to be more honest, too. Because what they’re doing isn’t working, and they’re running out of time to figure it out.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Unless USWNT acts fast, team could be in big trouble at 2023 World Cup