USWNT flaws were exposed during its Women’s World Cup opener

When Vlatko Andonovski left Eden Park stadium after his team’s first World Cup game Saturday, he was seated in the left front seat of a red U.S. Soccer minivan. In the States, that would be the driver’s seat. But in New Zealand, cars drive on the left-hand side of the road, so Andonovski was just a passenger.

It’s an apt metaphor because how far the coach and his U.S. team go in this Women’s World Cup will largely be determined by a half-dozen young players who are untested on this stage; Andonovski is just along for the ride.

So far, the kids are all right. With Sophia Smith scoring twice in the first half of her World Cup debut, then assisting on another goal in the second half, the U.S. pushed aside Vietnam 3-0 in an opening performance that was more clumsy than clinical, more sloppy than sensational.

“It’s always great to get a win,” Andonovski said. “Obviously we came here to win the game. And we did that. Unfortunately, we didn’t capitalize on all the opportunities, great opportunities, that we created. And that’s something that we’re certainly going to focus on.”

Clearly this trip is going to be a bumpy one.

Although the U.S. outshot Vietnam 28-0, it put just seven of those tries on target, sending many of the rest over, around and off the goal frame. Alex Morgan even sent one into the goalkeeper’s legs in the first half, failing to capitalize on a penalty shot for the first time in her international career.

And while that was good enough to beat a Vietnamese team making its first World Cup appearance, it likely won’t be good enough to beat the Netherlands in the second group-stage game on Wednesday. And it certainly won’t be good enough to go far in the deepest, most competitive Women’s World Cup field in history.

Yet Morgan, playing in this tournament for the fourth time, isn’t worried.

“The way the first World Cup game goes is not the way the last one is going to go,” she said. “Teams need to have time to get into the World Cup. Having so many players who had their first World Cup experience, it was a good start for us.

“Could we have scored more goals? Of course. But we had a lot of players that played extremely well, we had a lot of players who this was their first time playing in a World Cup. We’re going to build on that.”

In many ways, Saturday’s game unfolded just how Andonovski hoped it would. He pushed midfielder Julie Ertz to the back line, where she hadn’t started since the last World Cup opener four years ago, and she responded with the best afternoon of the four U.S. defenders. He wanted to give some playing time to veterans Megan Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle, who have been sidelined with injuries, and each went 28 minutes. And he especially wanted to test his young players, giving starts to six World Cup rookies and bringing two others off the bench.

All had stout games, especially Smith and USC grad Savannah DeMelo, who contributed mightily on both sides of the ball.

“It was good to just get a game under my belt,” Smith said. “I was feeling all the emotions going into it, not really knowing what to expect. I don’t usually get nervous, but I was nervous before this game. I mean, it’s a World Cup.”

Expected to be the breakout star of this tournament, Smith opened the scoring in the 14th minute. The sequence started with Lindsey Horan sending a ball forward for Morgan, whose back-heel pass found Smith in full sprint up the left wing. She then outran a pair of defenders before grounding a left-footed shot through the legs of Vietnamese keeper Than Thi Kim Thanh.

Smith doubled the lead in the dying moment of first-half stoppage time, left-footing a shot through traffic and again through the keeper’s legs. But her most impressive play of the day was the pass that sent up the final goal in the 77th minute. After driving toward the end line, drawing the attention of a couple defenders and Thanh, the keeper, Smith sent a right-footed pass from a difficult angle to a lonely Horan, who had nothing but open net to shoot at from the center of the box.

“It’s always great to have the first game to really calm everyone’s nerves and get the three points and then we progress from there,” said Horan, the team’s captain. “You get the win, the three goals were great. But we could have finished a lot more of our opportunities.

“It is what it is. We’ll go back and look to see what we could have done better.”

Maybe. But reviewing that game film will likely leave Andonovski with more questions than answers. Although the U.S. spent most of the game in Vietnam’s end, players were far too unselfish, passing up clear shots in an effort to set up a teammate. At least a dozen times that resulted in an errant cross into a crowded penalty area while Morgan, Rapinoe and Horan combined for 12 shots from the run of play, but only put one on frame.

They won’t get away with wasting that many chances against a good team.

“We needed to be a little bit better with the final shot,” Andonovski said. “Usually it’s the final pass. I would say now it was the final shot.”

Before climbing into the passenger seat of the minivan for the ride to the team hotel, the coach flashed a wan smile. He wasn’t sure how long the ride would take or how bumpy it was going to be, but at least he knew where he was headed and who was driving. The same could be said about his team.

“I don’t think anyone on the staff is worried, actually,” he said. “We’re very, very encouraged.”