USA were stagnant and wasteful against Portugal. It was far from an anomaly

Two days before their decisive match against Portugal, Megan Rapinoe was asked how the USA should be judged if they fail to win this World Cup. Rapinoe paused for four full seconds, a lifetime for a charismatic player who can warm the tensest of press rooms.

“I never thought about that,” she said. It was one of the shortest answers she will ever provide.

She had to think about it on Tuesday. The Americans slogged through an insipid, scoreless draw with Portugal to edge into the knockout round and avoid the unwanted distinction of becoming the first USA team – and the first defending champions – to go out of a Women’s World Cup in the group stage.

“Whoo, girl, that was stressful,” Rapinoe said, motioning to wipe her forehead and laughing to defuse the tension. “I was like, fuck. Right at the end, yeah, that’s stressful.”

The US were poor in almost every area. The back line played errant passes out of bounds under minimal pressure. The midfielders were stagnant and provided precious few passing options. The finishing was wasteful.

More concerning for the US is that the tepid performance on Tuesday was far from an anomaly. The same problems were there in the 1-1 draw with the Netherlands five days earlier. They were there last year, when USA fell to England, Spain and Germany for their first three-game losing streak in 30 years.

Everyone is waiting for the performances of this USA team to catch up with the individual talent on the roster. But when is that going to happen, if at all? More importantly: How will it happen? With so many things broken, what actually needs to change? The US may not know themselves.

Related: Andonovski: ‘insane’ to question USA passion after holders almost knocked out

“I’m not sure,” said defender Kelley O’Hara, who was part of the USA teams who have won the past two World Cups.

O’Hara’s role at this World Cup has been reduced to that of a role-player veteran who holds teammates accountable and leads by experience. She did all that after Tuesday’s game, first to console Rose Lavelle for picking up a yellow card that means she is suspended for the next match, and then as she screamed in the team huddle after the game, a collective sigh of relief still reverberating from the American fans at Eden Park.

“But I believe in this team,” O’Hara continued. “I know what this team is capable of, I trust our coaches and the game plans that they put together, and the scouting reports that they give us, and I’m gonna wait to see that and go from there.”

That belief – that intangible American mentality that so often borders on cliche – was referenced by teammates in the aftermath of Tuesday’s near-disaster. Alex Morgan, competing in a fourth World Cup, said she knows the team have the talent. Rapinoe said she has “blind confidence” in the group.

The US face are likely to face a strong Sweden team in the next round

The US face are likely to face a strong Sweden team in the next round. Photograph: Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images

None of that answers the USA’s glaring tactical problems, however. Their issue in the first half against the Netherlands was an ill-timed and out-of-sync defensive press. USA head coach Vlatko Andonovski and his players all admitted as much after that match and in the days following, yet Tuesday’s performance brought the same struggles with no answers. After initial high pressure, the USA dropped off and once again let their opponents control the tempo.

Portugal had 56% of the possession and attempted – and completed – more passes. Portugal did not have a shot on target, but Jessica Silva’s first-half breakaway and Kika Nazareth’s swerving volley before half-time were warnings. Ana Capeta’s strike off the post in second-half stoppage time was inches away from ending USA’s tournament.

Andonovski made only two changes to the starting XI, one of which was widely expected. Lavelle started in place of Savannah DeMelo in the No 10 role and Lynn Williams earned her first World Cup start in place of Trinity Rodman up front. Lavelle was supposed to be the solution for the team’s midfield issues. Her suspension for the next match only worsens an already desperate situation for the United States.

After the match, Andonovski rebutted an endless stream of questions about his team’s deficiencies by reiterating that Portugal are a talented team who executed their plan brilliantly. And Andonovski snapped back at the idea that the USA players lacked the mentality and will to win.

But “hope” and “belief” remained the operative words among Andonovski and his players after the match. But if the US expect to win a third World Cup, they will need more than hope. Luck alone won’t win it, either, although it can be a necessary ingredient.

Defender Crystal Dunn said they were “very fortunate to have another opportunity” in the knockout round. “That’s where you have to dig deep,” she said. “That’s what it takes to win a World Cup. It’s not easy to do this and we’re taking it one game at a time.”

One game at a time. Survive and advance. Mission accomplished to get out of the group. If the Americans cannot fix the problems that have plagued them at this World Cup – and over the past year – they will be on their way home.

Related: USA squeeze into World Cup knockout stage after surviving late Portugal scare

On Sunday, Rapinoe was asked about the 2011 World Cup quarter-final against Brazil. The United States were on the brink of elimination in that game before she served a cross to Abby Wambach for an equalizer in the 122nd minute. Reflecting back, she said she could remember thinking in that moment, as the US desperately chased the game, that she was going to be part of the worst USA team ever. USA had not – and still have not – ever finished worse than third at a World Cup.

Those days of continued domination have long felt over as other top nations progress and the pool of talented teams widens. Portugal’s fine display in their first World Cup is evidence of that. Colombia’s win over Germany on Sunday is, too.

USA do not look like a contender right now. With a potential match against a tough (and familiar) Sweden team looming on Sunday in Melbourne, Rapinoe & Co are staring down that same 2011 fate in 2023: Is this the World Cup where the USA goes out early? It nearly happened on Tuesday but for the woodwork.

“If you’ve got to get up for a knockout round match in a World Cup, I don’t think anybody needs that kind of motivation,” Rapinoe said. “We got out of the group what we wanted to get out of the group, which is to get to the next round.”

Anything more than that right now looks like a serious challenge.

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