Sophia Smith leads USWNT to a sleepy World Cup-opening win over Vietnam

United States' Sophia Smith scores her side's first 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)
USWNT’s Sophia Smith scores her side’s first goal against Vietnam at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand, Saturday, July 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Cornaga)

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, everything everybody expected when the back-to-back champs met Vietnam, an overmatched World Cup debutant.

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.

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 Alex 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.

But Vietnam, sitting in a super-low block, otherwise kept the U.S. at bay — and that, precisely, had been their objective.

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, essentially admitted 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. (AP Photo/Andrew Cornaga)

They didn’t get that goal, but largely accomplished their mission. Their fans, outnumbered but exuberant, greeted every interception, every clearance, every tentative foray forward with cheers. They made more noise than the American fans, because, relative to expectations, they had more to get excited about.

In fact, with their grit and physicality, the Vietnamese players frustrated the U.S., and it was the Americans who seemingly survived a few injury scares. Trinity Rodman went down in the very first minute. The stretcher came for her and later for Morgan, though both stayed in the game.

Morgan, Smith and several other U.S. attackers missed chances. Rose Lavelle, back from a months-long injury layoff, struck the crossbar. For now, and over the coming days, those misses will be afterthoughts.

But goal differential could eventually prove decisive in a difficult group. In that sense, the result was slightly underwhelming.

And next up is a stiffer test, Thursday against the Netherlands in Wellington (Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET, Fox), in a game that could yield a Group E winner.