Last Sunday’s loss to Sweden was the historic nadir of U.S. women’s soccer. Most other nations would be thrilled to make the last 16, but the USA is not most nations. The only silver lining to this defeat — America’s earliest in major tournament history — is that Trinidad and Tobago wasn’t the opponent.
Alarm bells were ringing ahead of this knockout match. The Stars and Stripes stuttered through the group stage. After battering Vietnam in the opening game, the Americans only mustered draws against the Netherlands and Portugal. In fact, only the goalpost spared them from a last-minute exit against the Portuguese.
Ironically, Team USA returned to form against the Swedes. The American midfield was largely bypassed in group play, prompting head coach Vlatko Andonovski to adjust from a midfield three to a double pivot. Emily Sonnett and Andi Sullivan sat deep to retain solidity, with Lindsey Horan shifted up into the 10. This allowed the U.S. to impose itself offensively, with the midfield easily shifting the ball out wide to Sophia Smith and Trinity Rodman and creating a more balanced attack.
The tactical change worked a treat. Team USA dominated the game, outshooting their opponents 21 to eight. Full credit to their stalwart defense, but Sweden can thank goalkeeper Zećira Mušović for extending the match to penalties. She made 11 saves, including highlight reel stops against Horan and Cal alumna Alex Morgan.
After misses by Smith, Megan Rapinoe, and Kelley O’Hara, Sweden’s Lina Hurtig stood over the decisive penalty. U.S. keeper Alyssa Naeher saved the shot, only for the ball to bounce up off her hands and trickle just past the line. The referees needed video review to confirm the ball had crossed over. This moment was a microcosm of Team USA’s night. So close and yet so far; the reigning champions were sent home by a millimeter.
Nine times out of 10, Team USA wins that game. Soccer is a cruel mistress, especially on penalties. But that doesn’t mean mistakes weren’t made.
Andonovski tends not to use his substitutes. He only made one in regulation time, swapping Rodman for Lynn Williams. The changes he did make were questionable at best. Despite her poor finishing throughout the tournament, Morgan chased for every loose ball, and her hold-up play gave the attack a focal point. If she had to come off, Alyssa Thompson was waiting on the bench. The starlet is a pacy, tricky forward — ideal against tiring legs.
Andonovski’s choice? 38-year-old Rapinoe. Make no mistake: Rapinoe is an icon of the American game. She’s cemented her legend as both athlete and activist, and has nothing left to prove. But time catches up to all. Rapinoe’s age showed in the group stage, and this final cameo was no different. All she provided off the bench was wayward touches and impotent set piece deliveries. To add insult to injury, she missed in the shootout — pressure penalties were once her specialty.
Bringing on Rapinoe seems to have been a simple blunder. But indulge me in some armchair psychology. Imagine if Rapinoe had come on and decided the game, sending the team to the quarterfinals. It would’ve been a fairytale moment in a storied career — the perfect narrative. Andonovski’s head might have known to pick Thompson, but his heart cried out for Rapinoe. He listened to the latter, and paid the price.
Maybe this one decision doesn’t change the outcome. Maybe complacency, as some suggest, was America’s downfall. But considering how fine the margin of defeat was, it’s impossible not to ask, “what if?”
Regardless, the queen is dead. The era of American dominance in women’s football is over. Heads will roll, and reports indicate Andonovski is first on the chopping block. If they want to return to the top, Team USA must use this chastening loss as a learning opportunity.