AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) — Ana Capeta hit the post, a miss that saved the Americans in the Women’s World Cup.
Both the United States and Portugal were scoreless in stoppage time in Tuesday night’s Group E finale. Capeta, who had substituted in just two minutes prior, nearly gave Portugal a massive upset — and a berth in the knockout stage — as her shot beat American goalie Alyssa Naeher.
But not the post.
The ball hit the left post and saved the Americans from elimination by mere inches.
A blast of relief ran through every American player, coach and fan in Eden Park.
“That was stressful. I was like (expletive),” said Megan Rapinoe, using a curse word to describe her emotions.
In the end, the United States is moving on after its 0-0 tie with Portugal. It was good enough — just barely — for second behind the Netherlands.
Portugal would have needed a victory to knock the two-time defending champions and top-ranked team in the world.
While they may not be playing their best at the moment, the U.S. players were quick to point out after the game that they are, in fact, still playing.
“We’re not happy with the performance we put out there, but at the same time we’re moving on,” Alex Morgan said. “This isn’t the first time in my career that we’ve moved on second in the group.”
The last time the United States didn’t win its group was 2011, when the Americans finished second to Sweden before eventually losing to Japan on penalty kicks in the final.
This time around, the back-to-back defending champions scored just four goals during the three-game group stage; three goals were scored in the tournament opener against Vietnam.
The 2019 United States team more than tripled that number in its group stage opener against Thailand, which the Americans won 13-0 in a record for Women’s World Cup goals in a match.
“We trust our forwards, we trust our players to get it done. We haven’t in the group stage — and that’s on us,” defender Julie Ertz said. “Once it gets to the knockout stages, you kind of become a different team. It’s just do or die at that point.”
Part of the Americans’ problem has been injuries.
U.S. forward Mallory Swanson missed the tournament with a torn patellar tendon suffered in April in a friendly versus Ireland. Prior to that, Swanson was the United States’ leading scorer, and netted four of the team’s five goals in this year’s SheBelieves Cup.
But on Tuesday night, the players weren’t making excuses.
“I think we can create better chances to get a goal,” forward Lynn Williams said. “But at the end of the day, it’s one of those things where you turn the page and you have to learn and grow really quick because you have no time to dwell on this.”
The United States will likely play Sweden in the round of 16 on Sunday in Melbourne, Australia.
Sweden currently sits undefeated on top of Group G. In order for the date between the United States and Sweden to fall through, Sweden would have to lose to Argentina, and Italy would have to beat South Africa by a large margin to overcome the current 10-goal goal difference between the two teams.
The Swedes are familiar foes for the Americans, and a matchup with Sweden would be the seventh time the two countries have played in the Women’s World Cup. Sweden beat the United States 3-0 in the group stage of the Tokyo Olympics.
“I feel like we always play them. We know them so well,” Ertz said. “They’ve been great this tournament, so I’m excited. You always want to play against the best and I’m so excited to play them and show them what we have.”
Zach Allen is a student in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State.
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