The angst around the USWNT’s poor World Cup group stage is probably overblown

There have been critics of the coach, the veterans, the support pieces, and the substitutions during the United States women’s national team’s historically tricky group stage at the 2023 World Cup, but it’s still surprising to see critiques of the team’s smiling and dancing.

And it’s cool to be worried about the USWNT’s World Cup fate, but is it fair to be that worried? Like… dancing worried? Smiling worried?!

World Cup analyst and USWNT legend Carli Lloyd lit into her former team after the USWNT’s 0-0, goal-post aided draw with Portugal sent the two-time defending champions and their unprecedented three-peat bid into the Round of 16 without a first-place group finish for the first time since 2011.

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That was the year the Yanks lost their final group stage game to Sweden en route to a loss to Japan in the final, and until this tournament the only time the USWNT lost a group stage match.

Lloyd wasn’t happy that the team appeared happy after moving onto the knockout rounds, as veterans Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan were caught doing a dance on the field following the draw. Lloyd reasoned that the USWNT should’ve been shaken by nearly missing out on the next stage, or at least looked humbled or muted or by the experience.

“Just seeing this images for the first time, I’ve never witnessed something like that,” Lloyd said. “There’s a difference between being respectful of the fans, saying hello to your family, but to be dancing, to be smiling? The player of the match was that post. You’re lucky not to be going home right now.”

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That last line is true, but luck also took its time with the USWNT over the other 269 minutes of the group stage.

The world has undoubtedly made up crazy ground on the early-adopters and -dominators that comprise the USWNT, but Tuesday’s reaction in the USA — and in both Australia/New Zealand — begs a couple of questions:

Should we be worried about the USWNT? (Yes, at least a little)

Are there solid reasons to think things are going to be fine? (Also yes, and possibly a lot)

The USWNT is now merely tri-favorites to win the World Cup, with Spain and England joining the Yanks as +400 to lift the trophy.

What is there to worry about with the USWNT?

Well, let’s start here: The Yanks are without one of the best defenders to ever lace up boots in Becky Sauerbrunn and electric attacker Mallory Swanson. Catarino Macario is also not with the squad.c

And Rose Lavelle, arguably one of the team’s two best players with Lindsey Horan, has been suspended for the Round of 16 after picking up another yellow card versus Portugal. Sweden (in all likelihood) will love that, and the Yanks can probably expect, again, to be fouled like crazy. They’ll have to hold their nerve.

The USWNT’s four goals scored is a low figure for them and will be a lower figure entering the knockout rounds. Nine nations have scored more and three or four teams could pass the Yanks by the time their third group stage match is in the books.

Vlatko Andonovski’s choices in the series have also drawn scrutiny. He made just one substitute in the draw with the Netherlands and was clearly not briefed on the best way to answer questions about said choice. Kelley O’Hara, Alana Cook, and Lynn Williams are all lesser-used popular names making appearances on the lips and keyboard fingers of critics and that seems fair. Julie Ertz moving back to the midfield is also mentioned quite a bit.

Sweden smashed Italy 5-0. The USWNT scored one goal over its last 193 minutes and isn’t keeping the ball. They showed a goal allergy at the 2020 Olympics, too, where they lost 3-0 to Sweden in the group stage.

Without Lavelle, the ride could well be over on Sunday.

Portugal v USA: Group E – FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023

Sure, but don’t the numbers say the worry is overblown?

Actually, pretty much.

Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola has made a habit of critiquing his teams performances more than the results, and that an item worth discussing in this space.

Pep would hate the USWNT’s possession numbers, especially given the side’s expected superiority, but he’d likely look at the rest of the figures and exhale pretty deeply.

The Yanks out-attempted Portugal 17-6 and did not allow a shot on goal while forcing six saves out of Ines Pereira. The numbers were 18-5 with four of the game’s five shots on target 1-1 split with the Netherlands.

Forget the 3-0 win over Vietnam. You wouldn’t want to acknowledge the 28-0 shot discrepancy (The Dutch rang up a 42-5 advantage and collected a 7-0 win to claim the group).

Unless Germany manages to allow a negative goal differential in its group stage finale, the USWNT will finish with the best xGA in the group stage and a top-five xG (they are currently third but Brazil, Sweden, and/or Germany could pass them).

Alex Morgan has scored 121 times for the USWNT and her 2.98 xG total is second on the tournament’s xG leaderboard to Spain’s Jennifer Hermoso. Her shot-creation numbers are good, if not very good, and it would be surprising to see her goalless streak stretch even further. Furthermore, it would be outright stunning if Morgan didn’t find a goal and Sophia Smith also didn’t score. Smith’s 10 successful take-ons (t-7th) is part of a bevy of promising numbers, actually, as she’s third at the World Cup in progressive passes received and ninth in carries into the opposing 18.

Andi Sullivan’s 10 interceptions lead the tournament, Crystal Dunn’s nine are second, and Lindsey Horan’s seven are tied for eighth. You need to not have the ball to win it back that much, sure, but those numbers show something.

There’s also the matter of Lavelle’s golden cloud with a dark lining. The Yanks will not have it easy making it past Sweden without Lavelle, but the midfielder’s shot-creating actions per 90 minutes is 10th in the tournament while her expected assists per 90 minutes total trails only Sweden’s Jonna Andersson and Spain’s Alexia Putellas.

And when you’re at the ball, you might as well dance.

Portugal v USA: Group E – FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023


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