Associated Press: Relieved Americans escape and move on at the Women's World Cup

Megan Rapinoe of the United States scores the teams first goal from a penalty during the Women International Friendly between Sweden and the U.S. at Friends Arena on April 10, 2021 in Solna, Sweden. (Linnea Rheborg/Getty Images/TNS)
Megan Rapinoe of the United States scores the teams first goal from a penalty during the Women International Friendly between Sweden and the U.S. at Friends Arena on April 10, 2021 in Solna, Sweden. (Linnea Rheborg/Getty Images/TNS)

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) — The Americans came into the Women’s World Cup as the two-time defending champions and tournament favorites.

By the end of the group stage, they are relieved to still be in the competition.

“That was stressful. I was like (expletive),” said United States star Megan Rapinoe, using a curse word to describe her emotions after the team squeezed into the knockout stage with a 0-0 draw against Portugal on Tuesday.

Had Portugal substitute Ana Capeta's shot gone into the net rather than hit the post and rebounded out in stoppage time, the Americans might have been eliminated.

As it is, they are advancing in second place behind the Netherlands.

A blast of relief ran through every American player, coach and fan in Eden Park when the final whistle sounded.

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. And the three goals were scored in their tournament opener against Vietnam.

The 2019 United States team more than tripled that number in its group-stage opener against Thailand, which it won 13-0 in a record for goals in a match at a Women's World Cup.

“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 another matchup 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.”

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Zach Allen is a student in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State.

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/fifa-womens-world-cup

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