There was a moment early in the first half of the US Women’s National Olympic Campaign opening game when midfielder Rose Lavelle, dribbling the ball into the Swedish half with the ball at her feet, looked around furiously and held out her hands as if she was lost . Even if you can’t hear what she said in Tokyo’s cave-like Ajinomoto Stadium, it’s easy to imagine it being something like “Where is everyone?”
In short, this is how the USWNT started their 2020 Olympics looking confused after a 3-0 loss to the Group G opening.
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First of all, the defeat was remarkable because the team rarely loses. It was unbeaten in its last 44 games in Wednesday’s game, with 40 of those wins. His last defeat came in January 2019 in a friendly match in France.
To say the reigning women’s world champion came to Japan as a favorite is perhaps an understatement. The US has gone gold medal at five of the six Olympics since women’s football became an event, and unlike some teams in Tokyo, the USWNT has played warm-up games in the months leading up to that amid the pandemic.
But the defeat was also remarkable because the defeat was so bad. Confused faces abounded as players, including Lavelle, searched for an open-minded American to pass the ball to but couldn’t find anyone. When Sweden swarmed out, put pressure on midfield and commanded, the Americans looked excited and gave the ball too cheaply.
“It felt like there were holes everywhere on the defensive,” said forward Alex Morgan. “I didn’t feel like we were clenching and when we were on the attack and were going to lose the ball, we didn’t have the numbers around the ball to get it back.”
The hopelessness and confusion didn’t come in spurts, as it sometimes happens with even the best teams, but lasted for the full 90 minutes and the USWNT never looked anywhere near a comeback. It’s a rare feeling in USWNT history. The last example may have been at the 2007 World Cup, where Brazil beat the US 4-0 – but there were extenuating circumstances when then coach Greg Ryan bizarrely put first goalkeeper Hope Solo on the bench.
There was no reason for the USWNT to lose as badly as it did on Wednesday, but much credit goes to Sweden, a team that has become a tactical thorn in the USWNT team over the years. After all, the only Olympics the USWNT crashed was in 2016, when Sweden knocked out the Americans in the quarter-finals in a disciplined, ultra-defensive bunker.
However, this Swede was not a bunker-and-counter team. This Swede was out for the carotid artery, delivering crunching tackles to stop any hint of American possession, and signing numbers forward to cut and strike the American defense.
Sweden’s first goal in the 25th minute seemed to go as planned: The USWNT remained out of place in midfield, lost possession and catapulted Sweden in the other direction. Yellow jerseys flew forward and even before the USA knew what had happened, Stina Blackstenius headed the ball into the net.
When the USWNT dominates games, they like to use every inch of the field, spraying the ball around and using the wide spaces to their advantage, and Sweden has certainly recognized that, closed pass lines and choked those spaces. That made the US midfield a revenue engine. But as much as Sweden deserves recognition, the Americans deserve as much guilt.
“We kicked each other’s asses a bit,” said Megan Rapinoe afterwards. “There are a lot of things we can sort of – catching the ball, passing the ball to your team, is probably the first.”
In other words, the USWNT appeared confused and unprepared for what to expect on Wednesday. It would be easy to say that maybe the USWNT was just too overconfident. Perhaps the number 1 in the world and the favorite of this tournament had expected it to be a breeze. On the contrary, the USWNT appeared to be lacking in self-confidence after kick-off. That immediately got the Americans into trouble, as their confidence is perhaps their deadliest weapon – the mentality that no matter the outcome, they always believe they can win and find a way to outperform the other team.
“We were a little tight, a little nervous – we did stupid things like not passing the ball,” said Rapinoe. “… I think a lot was because we didn’t play freely and were not what we are and not enjoying it.”
If there’s a positive spin on performance, at least it is that it happened at the start of the tournament. After 44 unbeaten games, the USWNT might have needed a reminder of the pain of losing.
“We have had a long series of wins and we haven’t had a lot of games to come back to or anything like that,” said striker Christen Press. “I think it was really good to have this game.”
Take the 2008 Olympic Games, for example. There the USA lost their opening game 2-0 to Norway. It recovered without losing the rest of the way and won gold. While the US does not usually lose in major tournaments, the Americans usually perform poorly. During the 2015 World Cup, which the US later won, calls came from the media and even former members of the team to sack then head coach Jill Ellis for her lackluster performance.
At the 2019 World Cup in France – where on paper the US dominated and scored within the first 12 minutes of each game en route to the final – the round of 16 match against Spain was shaky and mistakes allowed Spain to score what made for a surprisingly close match given Spain’s still rising status in women’s football.
But the right lessons need to be learned, including coach Vlatko Andonovski, whose substitutions projected panic and nervousness rather than the serenity of a clear game plan. At halftime he dragged Morgan, who as the most progressive player on the field was the USA’s least of all problems, in favor of Carli Lloyd, who was normally reserved for the late game minutes. He also brought on Samantha Mewis for Julie Ertz, the deadlocked defensive midfielder he would certainly have preferred on Wednesday. After all, Ertz is known as a midfield enforcer who flies challenges and wins balls. But crucially, Ertz survived an injury and hasn’t played competitive football since May, and there was some rust in it, which makes her an unlikely solution in such a difficult game.
The good news is at least that New Zealand, the USWNT’s closest opponents in Group G, are not on the same level as Sweden. It’s also hard to imagine the USWNT could play worse, so their Olympic campaign can only get better from here.
“We, as Vlatko said, got ourselves into this mess,” said Captain Becky Sauerbrunn. “Now it’s our responsibility to get us out of there.”