The knockout round of the 2023 World Cup begins Saturday, and anything seems possible in the do-or-die portion of play in Australia and New Zealand. And while this tournament has shown how tremendous the game can be when federations invest in their women’s programs, it’s also been full of disappointments, from teams, individuals and yes, referees.
Who knows what will happen when the Round of 16 kicks off Saturday at 1 a.m. ET with Switzerland, the winners from Group A, taking on Spain, the runners up from Group C. The USWNT hasn’t looked good (no kidding) but often thrives with its back against the wall — could the Americans still find a way to put together a run?
The play of the U.S. is hardly the only disappointment of this tournament, though. Here’s more on the Americans, and other disappointments and not-so-sweet surprises.
To say the Americans have looked listless and overmatched is an understatement. Yes, this roster features more than a dozen players making their World Cup debut, and they haven’t had a ton of time to gel. As two-time defending champs, they’ve got tons of pressure on them. Like most teams, the U.S. is feeling the weight of injuries and desperately missing players like Mallory Swanson and Becky Sauerbrunn.
But this group is also loaded with talent — not that you’d know it based purely off their last two group games, a 1-1 draw with the Netherlands and a 0-0 draw against Portugal. The U.S. is lacking offense in a big way, and it’s particularly distressing that Alex Morgan, a veteran forward who’s scored 121 goals over 210 appearances, hasn’t been able to connect. It hasn’t been for lack of opportunity either: Morgan missed a penalty kick in the USWNT’s 3-0 win over Vietnam, and had numerous good looks in each of the U.S.’s three group games.
The reigning Olympic champions didn’t make it out of group play, the first time that’s happened to a team that won gold at the previous Olympics. Yes, the Canadians have been at odds with their federation over pay issues and the stress of that surely took its toll. But Canada also just looked off.
Christine Sinclair, who has scored more international goals than anyone else, missed a penalty kick vs. Nigeria, a costly miscue that cost Canada a win (the match finished in a 0-0 draw). Meanwhile, in Canada’s final group game vs. Australia, the co-hosts dismantled the Canadians, winning 4-0, knocking Canada out of group play. What’s more, it was a brutal goodbye for Sinclair, a beloved superstar who has played in her last World Cup.
No singular player has been more synonymous with the growth and beauty of the women’s game than Marta, a 6-time FIFA player of the year. But for all of her individual brilliance — she is a show-woman in every sense of the world, known for her artistic flair on the pitch — Marta does not have a World Cup trophy.
She’s hardly the only talent on Brazil’s roster too. The Seleção Canarinha (“Canary Squad”, a nod to their bright yellow jerseys) also boasted Ary Borges, Kerolin and Debinha (who had maybe the best World Cup commercial). That firepower, coupled with trying to win one for Marta, and you can’t even get out of group play? For the first time since 1995? Talk about a heartbreaking sendoff for one of, if not the, greatest of all time.
The Germans came into the tournament ranked No. 2 according to FIFA, and were favored to get to the semifinals, if not the finals. They opened group play by smoking Morocco 6-0, seemingly sending a message that they were in New Zealand and Australia to dominate.
But then in the chaos that is the 2023 World Cup, they fell apart against Colombia, losing on a last-minute goal. And when Morocco upset Colombia, Germany had to beat South Korea to advance. It sounded straightforward — until the Germans finished in a 1-1 draw, which knocked them out of the knockout round for the first time ever. Colombia and Morocco advanced out of Group H instead.
For all the criticism leveled at the USWNT’s poor play in the World Cup, Germany’s situation is a great reminder: it could be worse.
The Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football got five teams into the tournament – but only two advanced (USWNT and Jamaica). And worse, the other three (Costa Rica, Panama and Haiti) were winless.
True, Haiti played some impressive defense against England, but a loss is a loss. Meanwhile, as detailed above, the USWNT has been underwhelming (understatement).
But also, credit where its due: Jamaica has been the bright spot of the confederation, qualifying for the knockout round for the first time after a 0-0 draw vs. Brazil in group play. This is just the second World Cup appearance for the Reggae Girlz, who have the best nickname in soccer and have become the darlings of this World Cup; after not receiving adequate funding from its federation, fans crowdfunded nearly $100,000 to help the team cover expenses.
No official, in any sport, is perfect — and that’s not any (reasonable) person’s expectation.
But throughout the tournament there have been several games, involving the USWNT and others, where officials didn’t call fouls or hand out yellow cards early enough. That’s resulted in some dangerous situations, which is especially noteworthy given all the injuries that have already sidelined numerous standout players.
The USWNT has felt this in particular, after midfielder Rose Lavelle, who’s finally healthy and started vs. Portugal, will miss the Round of 16 game vs. Sweden after getting yellow cards in back-to-back games.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USWNT among biggest disappointments so far at 2023 Women’s World Cup