The United States hasn’t faced much disappointment thus far in Rio. Michael Phelps has won every race he’s entered, the women’s gymnastics team is turning a major international competition into a de facto intrasquad scrimmage, and the country holds a comfortable lead in the medal count.
The gold rush had to stop at some point, and the flow finally dried up for the U.S. women’s soccer team in Brasilia on Friday. After 120 minutes of entertaining if sloppy play and a pair of questionable (read: just plain wrong) refereeing decisions, Sweden eliminated the U.S. on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals.
For the first time ever, the U.S. women won’t play in the semifinals of a major international tournament; for the first time in the Olympics, they won’t play in the gold-medal match. This is a boon for the Swedes, who have given good teams trouble for years but haven’t won a major tournament. It’s a shocking loss for the Americans, who saw their chances to extend a historic title run fly over the crossbar.
The U.S. is a team in transition, playing in a sport in transition, and Friday’s loss made clear the program’s difficulties in remaining atop the world of women’s soccer.
The game itself was a lively affair, much more so than the tactical 0–0 draw the teams suffered through in World Cup group play a year ago. The Swedes took the lead on a breakaway, Alex Morgan tied the score after a flick-on header by substitute Crystal Dunn bounced off a defender’s face, and the match went to overtime tied at 1. In overtime, a pair of unfortunate offsides calls in a two-minute span stripped a worthy goal from each team, and Sweden outshot the U.S. 4–3 in penalties to advance.
By the numbers, the Americans were the better team: The U.S. held 64 percent possession for the game, outshot the Swedes 26-to-3, and earned 12 corners to Sweden’s three. And those figures don’t include the hordes of crosses with which the U.S. midfield peppered Sweden’s penalty area.
But, Hope Solo’s, um, impassioned thoughts aside, the statistical imbalance belies the fact that Sweden largely dictated the flow of the game. Pia Sundhage’s team was content to sit with 10 women behind the ball, inviting cross after misplaced cross and looking to take advantage of the few counter opportunities available.
Stina Blackstenius, who was playing only because Sweden’s starting forward left in the 18th minute with an injury, sped past an overextended American backline an hour into the match, muscling past Becky Sauerbrunn before scoring on a shot to the corner.
And when the Americans sent in their crosses, Sweden’s defense was consistently able to head the ball clear of danger. (That’s what made Jill Ellis’s substitution patterns so head-scratching. When crosses aren’t working, why insert Megan Rapinoe, whose only plan of attack as she works her way back into game shape is crossing?)
The USWNT’s struggles to cope with physical opposition underline the biggest question facing the program going forward: As the rest of the world matches the Americans in size and speed, how do they adapt? Maybe they turn the technically skilled Tobin Heath into an offensive focal point, or they start relying on the positionally amorphous Dunn as a key creator. Maybe Julie Johnston expands her role and embodies the evolved tactics of an attack-capable central defender.
One thing is certain: The challenges now come not just from one or two other countries, but from a half dozen. When Colombia, whose women’s team had never scored an Olympic goal before this week, can take the game to the Americans and successfully press their midfield, the U.S. no longer has a fast lane to the late knockout rounds of any given tournament.
This is a team in flux. Only seven players on the U.S. roster returned from the gold-winning 2012 squad, and the central axis of the recent American dynasty will soon be aged out. Solo will turn 38, Carli Lloyd 37, and Megan Rapinoe 34 during the next summer of a major international tournament (the 2019 World Cup). Three of the team’s four starting defenders will be in their 30s by then. Even Morgan, who still seems like she should be the blazing-fast sprinter who galloped past defenders as a youngster, will turn 30 in that summer.
The next time the Americans play in an important tournament game, fans might see Dunn and a no-longer-teenaged Mallory Pugh running in overlapping patterns on the wings while Morgan Brian cements a staunch defensive midfield and Johnston bounds forward from the back.
Solo and Lloyd (with her two gold-medal-winning scores) might be gone, though, and Rapinoe might play the uncomfortable “aging star” role occupied by Abby Wambach last year in Canada.
The trophies they won will surely gain company in the coming tournaments, but the U.S. squad that lost to Sweden is the portrait of an evolving team, and it will be up to the next age of American soccer stars to start a dynastic streak of their own.