|The USA look far from World Cup favourites after limping into the lst 16 with an unconvincing goalless draw with Portugal on Tuesday|
The United States came into the Women's World Cup as favourites to win a third title in a row but they head into the last 16 looking anything but champions after limping through the group stage.
There were already doubts about Vlatko Andonovski's side after an unimpressive 3-0 win over Vietnam in their opening game was followed by a 1-1 draw with the Netherlands.
Andonovski and his players put a positive spin on those displays but there were very few redeeming features about their performance on Tuesday, when they held on for a 0-0 draw with World Cup debutants Portugal to scrape through to the knockout phase.
Ana Capeta's shot that hit the post in injury time very nearly won the game for Portugal, which would have condemned the holders to an unthinkable group-stage exit.
But aside from surviving that scare, the underlying numbers are concerning for the Americans.
They had less of the possession at Eden Park and failed to score for the first time in 15 World Cup games, since a 0-0 draw with Sweden in the 2015 group phase.
They also had less of the possession in their draw with the Dutch, while their finishing has been poor since the tournament started.
"I don't think that was a good performance all together, starting from the back," admitted Andonovski.
"I don't think we were able to solve the problems that the opponents presented. There were moments where we did and it looked good, but those moments were very few and not enough to be able to walk out of here with several goals."
- Has the world caught up? -
The 46-year-old Andonovski is in the firing line.
It was always going to be a huge task for him to succeed Jill Ellis, who led the team to back-to-back World Cup triumphs in 2015 and 2019 before stepping down.
Andonovski brought a 23-player squad to New Zealand that featured 14 World Cup debutants, with injuries and retirement ruling out several veterans of recent successful campaigns.
There were high hopes placed in many of the novices, and the likes of Sophia Smith, Andi Sullivan and Trinity Rodman have impressed in moments.
But it is hard to escape the feeling that the rest of the world is catching up with the US fast.
|Megan Rapinoe and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher are two of the veterans in a young USA side at this World Cup|
The best women's club football these days is surely being played in Europe, where Barcelona have taken over from Lyon as the dominant force in the Champions League.
Yet captain Lindsey Horan, at Lyon, is the only member of the US team currently playing in Europe.
Could it be that the standard of play in the domestic NWSL is not at the level needed to prepare Andonovski's squad for the World Cup stage?
- Failing to fire -
Alex Morgan, who has played for the US in the last three World Cups, repeated an oft-used phrase in this tournament to explain her team's travails against Portugal.
"Every team in this World Cup is going to be difficult to play. The game is growing and the quality is continuing to rise," she said.
The US were the only team among the eight quarter-finalists at the last World Cup to hail from outside Europe, where standards have been rapidly rising.
Their difficulties against the Netherlands and Portugal so far this year suggest they will struggle against top European opposition in the knockout phase.
They now leave New Zealand to head to Australia for a last-16 tie on Sunday in Melbourne which will almost certainly be against Olympic silver medallists Sweden.
Andonovski will go into that game without Rose Lavelle due to suspension, which is a big blow.
He has decisions to make in attack too, with none of his front line firing against Portugal.
If they do make the quarter-finals, they will return to Auckland for a meeting with Norway or an ominous-looking Japan.
Asked by local media if they would be back in New Zealand at this World Cup, Morgan replied: "That is the plan. We want to make it back to the final and that includes coming back to New Zealand."
Right now such bullishness seems misplaced.