Sophia Smith spearheads the USWNT’s subdued triumph over Vietnam in the World Cup opening match.

Confident US enters Women’s World Cup against underdog Vietnam as quest for 3rd title begins

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — The U.S. women’s national team’s 2023 World Cup opener was lopsided. It was one-sided and never in doubt. It was, in a way exactly what everyone anticipated when the consecutive champions faced Vietnam, a World Cup newcomer who was clearly outmatched.

But it was only 3-0.

It was sleepy and somewhat sloppy.

It was far from the bloodbath that many feared it would become because the U.S. never quite got out of second gear, and because Vietnam was up for the fight.

“I mean, of course, we’re happy with the win,” forward Alex Morgan said. “But I think we could’ve gotten more goals.”

It was played almost entirely on one half of the field, with the U.S. almost exclusively in possession. American goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher hardly touched the ball. And the final result became a foregone conclusion when Morgan played a delightful flick and Sophia Smith slammed home the game’s first goal

Smith added a scruffy second goal shortly before halftime — once an agonizingly long VAR review concluded that Morgan had not been offside in the buildup.

Lindsey Horan scored a third with less than 15 minutes remaining.

Morgan admitted as much. “I think that’s the point of Vietnam, is to frustrate us,” she said. “And I think there was ebbs and flows of the game that were frustrating at times.”

The Vietnamese never truly stood a chance to win the game — and they knew that. They arrived vowing to fight, to play with “spirit” and pride, “to try our best.” But to win? Vietnamese media laughed at the thought Friday, and head coach Mai Duc Chung smiled.

“I mean, if we can win, that is wonderful, we don’t refuse that,” he said.

But he and his players were realistic. The USWNT was a -50000 favorite, with an implied win probability of 99.8%. Its world-champion players earn 15 times more apiece for a single World Cup qualifying win than Vietnam’s only foreign-based star, Huynh Nhu, makes per month in the Portuguese second division. Its last World Cup game against a Southeast Asian team of similar caliber, Thailand in 2019, ended 13-0. Which is why a Vietnamese reporter asked U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski on Friday: “Are you gonna crush us like Thailand four years ago?”

That seemed to be the pertinent question. Mai, the Vietnam coach, openly acknowledged that his team’s priority was damage control.

“We will have very suitable tactics so that we can minimize the conceded goals, and we can minimize the injuries,” he said Friday through a translator. “And if we can score a goal, it’d be great!”

United States' Lindsey Horan, left, celebrates with United States' Sophia Smith after scoring her side's 3rd goal during the Women's World Cup Group E soccer match between the United States and Vietnam at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand, Saturday, July 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Cornaga)
Lindsey Horan celebrates with Sophia Smith after scoring the USWNT’s third goal against Vietnam at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand, Saturday, July 22, 2023.(Sportstar-The Hindu)

They didn’t get that goal, but largely accomplished their mission. In fact, it was the U.S. that seemingly survived a few injury scares. Trinity Rodman went down in the very first minute. The stretcher came for her and later for Morgan. Both stayed in the game, but overzealous Vietnamese tackles never relented.

Their fans, decked out in red headbands and face paint, outnumbered but exuberant, greeted every interception, every clearance, every tentative foray forward with crescendoing cheers. They made more noise than the American fans, because, relative to expectations, they had more to get excited about.

And so did the players. They walked through a post-match interview zone with smiles spread across their faces. Their U.S. counterparts, on the other hand, mostly wore sober expressions — and fielded questions about whether they should’ve scored more and why they couldn’t.

“How does it affect your confidence that you didn’t win by more?” one reporter asked.

“That’s a strange question,” Smith responded, bluntly.

Other players, though, didn’t shy away from the idea that 3-0 was unsatisfactory.

“Obviously three goals was great, but I think we could’ve finished a lot more of our opportunities,” Horan said. “We know that.”

She later turned to cliche lines that players often offer after losses or draws: “I think we could’ve scored three or four more. It is what it is. We keep going, and go back and look and see what we could’ve done better.”

None of them were worried, though, because the problem wasn’t chance-creation. It was finishing, which is notoriously fluky and random. “Usually it’s the final pass,” Andonovski said postgame, referencing his team’s prior struggles in the final third. “Today it was the final shot.” Morgan, Smith, Megan Rapinoe, and other U.S. attackers missed what Andonovski called “great opportunities.” Rose Lavelle, back from a months-long injury layoff, struck the crossbar.

For now, and over the coming days, those misses will be afterthoughts, because they’re easily correctable.

But they could loom large a week from now. Goal differential could eventually prove decisive in a difficult Group E. That’s why this win was slightly underwhelming.

Next up, however, will be an entirely different game, a two-sided one on Thursday against the Netherlands in Wellington (Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET, Fox). By then, Vietnam will be forgotten. And by the end of that night, we’ll know far more about the USWNT’s World Cup readiness.

Leave a Comment