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CHAMPS UNDER FIRE | Americans told to ‘raise the standard’

The USA Women's National Team is pressed to defend its title in the FIFA Women's World Cup. Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images/AFP (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AFP) — United States captain Lindsey Horan has called on the holders to “raise the standard” heading into the Women’s World Cup knockout phase but defended her team against criticism that followed their goalless draw with Portugal.

The two-time defending champions limped through to a Last-16 tie against Sweden after holding on for a 0-0 stalemate against Portugal at Eden Park on Tuesday.

That result saw them advance from their group in second place behind the Netherlands with just one win from three games.

US women’s team great Carli Lloyd hit out at their performance, calling them “lackluster” and “uninspiring” in her role as a TV pundit.

Lloyd also suggested the holders looked arrogant, but Horan hit back.

“It is kind of frustrating for me to hear, especially knowing this team and knowing how much we put into every single game,” Horan told reporters in Auckland on Thursday.

“It was a really good team that we faced. For me, it is noise.”

“Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and we know that is how it goes, but I always want to defend my team and say you have no idea what is going on behind the scenes.”

Horan’s 2019 World Cup-winning teammate Lloyd has since sought to play down her post-game comments.

“For anyone to question our mentality hurts a little bit but at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter, I don’t really care,” said midfielder Horan, 29, who plays for French champions Lyon.

The USA’s displays in New Zealand have raised doubts about their ability to cope with a multi-pronged European threat in the knockout stage.

Sweden are up next in Melbourne, and the world’s third-ranked team beat the USA 3-0 when the sides last met at the Olympics in Tokyo two years ago.

If Vlatko Andonovski’s US team beat Sweden, they will return to Auckland for a quarter-final against either Japan or Norway.

European champions England, Germany, France and co-hosts Australia are all in the other half of the draw.

“I think we are getting better and better but we need to raise the standard because all these European teams and all these teams around the world are catching up, bringing a different aspect,” Horan admitted.

“We can’t just physically outdo teams, we actually have to be better with the ball, and be able to combine and play out. I think this team is fully capable of that. We are in a good place.”

Sweden and the USA will be meeting at a sixth consecutive World Cup on Sunday, having been drawn in the same group in each of the last five editions.

The USA emerged 2-0 winners in 2019 when Horan scored the opener.

“We are going to move forward, it’s a new tournament starting now, it’s the knockout stages,” said Horan, who urged her team to “find the joy in it a little bit more.”

That sentiment was shared by her teammate Lynn Williams, the 30-year-old forward appearing at her debut World Cup and who was handed a first start against Portugal.

“We need to be joyful that we made it to the round of 16 and not diminish that accomplishment,” Williams said.

“That was the name of the game the whole time, to get out of the group stage, and that is exactly what we did.”

“Of course, we want to be playing better but tournaments are about results and we are getting results.”

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