From where she stood, the ball looked to be headed straight into the goal, and Megan Rapinoe cursed loudly in her head.
“My whole international career is over,” she said she thought as a shot by Portugal whistled toward the United States’ net in the final minutes on Tuesday, threatening to end Rapinoe’s final Women’s World Cup.
Neither team had scored yet. The tie that loomed would mean the United States would advance to the next round. A loss would send the Americans packing their bags in what would have been the biggest upset in Women’s World Cup history.
And so Rapinoe swore as the shot delivered by Portugal forward Ana Capeta headed toward the goal, watching wide-eyed with players on both sides as it veered just a smidgen too far to the right. The ball hit the right post and then, to the relief of Rapinoe and her team, caromed off it and away from the goal.
“Girl,” Rapinoe said with a nervous laugh, “that was stressful.”
A few minutes later the game ended, still stuck in a 0-0 tie that meant the United States had finished second to the Netherlands in Group E. Now it’s off to the round of 16 in Melbourne, Australia, where on Sunday the U.S. team most likely will play Sweden. It is trying to forget just how close it came to the exit. It is ready to move on.
Forget this long, frustrating night, Rapinoe and her teammates said. Forget that the United States has had trouble scoring at this tournament, they said, and that it just cannot figure out how to convert its passes and its possession into goals.
That was the message delivered by Kelley O’Hara, a defender at her fourth World Cup, to the team as it huddled together near midfield after Tuesday’s great escape. O’Hara leaned in and looked around at the faces of her teammates — some sad, some blank, some determined. It doesn’t matter what happened here, she told them.
“I just told them, ‘Listen, guys, we did what we had to do,’” O’Hara said. “‘This game’s done.’”
Defender Crystal Dunn got the message. “We know we can be better,” she said. “It’s not like everyone’s sitting there like, ‘Wow, that was the most amazing performance we put together.’ But that’s where you have to dig deep.
“That’s what it takes to win a World Cup. It’s not easy to do this. Right now we are very fortunate to have another opportunity to put on a great performance.”
Later, the team’s coach, Vlatko Andonovski, took time to reflect on the result against Portugal, a team that was expected to be a challenge, but perhaps not quite that much of one.
He said that he has seen bright spots in the way the U.S. team has played over its three group stage games, although Tuesday was a low point.
“It’s not like we played well, by any means,” he said. “We all know it’s not good enough.”
The United States, he knows, has work to do. But none of that is anything to panic about, striker Alex Morgan said. She had finished second in the group at past World Cups. Now the team has all the pieces it needs “to make it all the way” to the final. It just needs to put them together.
It’s Andonovski’s job to do that. Against Portugal, he finally made some changes to his lineup. Now he will need to make a few more.
On Tuesday, Rose Lavelle, the star midfielder restored to the starting lineup, used her creativity and energy to drive her teammates forward, to create chances for them to score. But after knocking down a Portuguese player, she received her second yellow card in two games, meaning she will be suspended from the round of 16 game.
O’Hara said it was disappointing that Lavelle wouldn’t be able to play on Sunday, especially after she came back from an injury and was building back her minutes. She had been restored to the lineup to maximize her “energy, her fight and her aggressiveness and just her flair,” O’Hara said, though she had no details about how the team would regain its confidence now that Lavelle will be out. She frowned when asked how the team will regroup mentally.
“We’re just going to do a couple of kumbayas and we’ll be good,” she said before quickly turning and walking off.
Rapinoe was not sure, either, of how, exactly, the team would rebuild its confidence. But, she said, it can easily be done. Earlier this week, she recalled a moment in the quarterfinal game versus Brazil at the 2011 World Cup, when the U.S. team was in extra time and was just seconds from elimination before she fired in a cross to Abby Wambach that was headed in for a tying goal.
“I thought about that in the moment,” she said, a sensation she repeated on Tuesday. Facing an early exit back then, she added, left her talking to herself. “Actually, I’m like: ‘We’re going to be the worst team ever in the history of the national team. It’s going to be terrible.’
“And then, obviously, you know, that play happens.”
With one brilliant pass, Rapinoe had altered her team’s fate.
Those kinds of small miracles, she knows, can happen again.