By Michael Burgess at Eden Park
Not many saw this coming.
The United States arrived two weeks ago as Fifa Women’s World Cup favourites – but their crown is looking shaky now.
They were on the brink of one of the great tournament shocks at Eden Park on Tuesday night, eventually held 0-0 by Portugal.
The back-to-back champions were the width of a post away from going out of the World Cup, as Portuguese striker Ana Capeta hit the post in the 92nd minute, from a sharp counter attack.
Though they had more chances, there was always the threat that the Europeans could grab a goal, and in the end the USA were relieved to escape with a draw, in front of a record crowd of 42,958.
This just doesn’t happen. It was only the second time in 27 World Cup group games the USA were held scoreless.
The result means they finish second in their group, behind the Netherlands, who thumped Vietnam 7-0. They will face Sweden in the round of sixteen match, which will be a tough assignment.
By their standards it was an ugly display, though Portugal managed the performance of their lives.
The United States can still regroup, but don’t look anywhere near good enough at their current level.
This was a remarkably tense affair. The USA were riding an 19-match unbeaten streak at the World Cup but they couldn’t crack Portugal, and the longer the match went on, there was the unthinkable possibility that their campaign might finish here.
Portugal had lost all 10 of their previous encounters between the two teams but the tournament debutants were up for this.
They crowded and hustled, pushing the defending champions into uncharacteristic mistakes, while being productive in possession themselves.
The night was tinged with anticipation. A massive crowd, plenty of colourful USA fans and pockets of proud Portuguese. Eight of the eleven United States players again made their point, with only captain Lindsay Horan, Alex Morgan and Julie Ertz appearing to sing the national anthem.
The Americans had some early half chances, before the Portuguese settled into their work. The Europeans were underdogs – but didn’t play like that. Striker Jessica Silva was doing stepovers, while she later shot wide. Lynn Williams looked dangerous for the USA – and almost created an opportunity for Morgan – but otherwise the front three were struggling to combine, while the Portuguese started to knit together their passing game, with Andreia Norton and Kika Nazareth prominent.
Morgan almost created something out of nothing with a brilliant dribble along the byline, but Williams couldn’t finish from five yards. Frustration was building, demonstrated by a loose pass over the sideline. The creative Rose Lavalle – who sets the pace and tempo in midfield – was booked, after a rash challenge, which will see her miss their round of 16 match. It looked a slightly harsh call but was an angry, unnecessary tackle.
Nazareth had some lovely touches – with a brilliant dummy at one point – and shot over from 20 metres. The Americans had a chance just before the break – with Williams shooting straight at the keeper – which summed up their untidy first half effort.
A fire alarm sounded for several minutes early in the second half. It was eventually declared a false alarm in a public address announcement. The alarm stopped just as the stadium clock hit 50 minutes into the game.
The USA came out with more vigour in the second half, with Morgan going close after she rounded the keeper, before a Lavelle free kick created more pressure. Megan Rapinoe entered the fray in the 60th minute to a huge ovation but it was still unconvincing. Chants of ‘We are the US, the mighty, mighty US’ rang around the ground but they weren’t sung with the same conviction.
Not much was going right and the USA often resorted to hopeful long balls, which was a strange sight. Rapinoe released Morgan with her first meaningful contribution, but her low shot was saved at the near post.
Trinity Rodman was brought on in the 84th minute, but the USA didn’t manage any more clear chances, while most of the crowd held their breath as Capeta bore down on goal. But her shot struck the woodwork, saving the Americans from surely the biggest boilover in Women’s World Cup history.
United States 0