The U.S. Women's National Team were shocked on Friday afternoon in a dramatic 4-3 penalty kick shootout loss against Sweden, which resulted in the U.S. missing out on (at least) the semifinals of the Olympic Games for the first time in history.
Before diving into what went wrong or what is potentially wrong with the team in the bigger picture, it's important to contextualize and avoid overreaction. For one, according to U.S. Soccer, the USWNT have scored 58 goals in 2016, while allowing only seven goals against them, which is to say that just because the team won't defend its three-time Olympic gold streak, its dominance overall is still unquestionable.
And more importantly, the Swedish national team is coached by Pia Sundhage, who coached the USWNT from 2008-12. Since becoming the boss in her native country, Sundhage has played the U.S. four times—the U.S. have not won any of these match-ups, tying three and losing one. So while a premature loss on the international stage is rare and unexpected, what happened on Friday can be rationally explained.
Sundhage is the one woman in the world who has been consistently building toward finally taking down the USWNT, and the one woman in the world who knows the U.S. Women as well as they know themselves. That being said, instead of dwelling on this quarterfinals loss we should be looking at it as a piece in a much larger puzzle.
Since their 2015 World Cup victory, the U.S. Women have been running themselves into the ground, and to an extent, that is their job. But in all reality, it is naive to think that constantly fighting for equal pay or adequate field conditions on top of jetting around the country on a World Cup victory tour during which key players (Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe) suffered injuries wouldn’t eventually take some kind of toll. Lloyd was asked to play 120 minutes on Friday afternoon, after just coming back full-time from a knee injury. Rapinoe was brought in as the U.S.'s final substitute after a very recent return from a complete ACL tear.
Questions flurried: Why not bring on Crystal Dunn instead of Rapinoe? Why didn't head coach Jill Ellis start Dunn? Dunn, who had been a fireplug at these Olympics--scoring a goal against Colombia on August 9 and creating opportunities in an attack that lacked creativity on Friday.
And speaking of puzzles, there were a notable amount of fresh pieces in the U.S.’s. Mallory Pugh is 18 years old, and this was her first time playing on a big stage with the team. Dunn, too. Defender Allie Long was a fresh face in the lineup who was not present during the 2015 World Cup. Same goes for Whitney Engen or Lindsay Horan. Not to mention the faces missing in Rio: recently retired Abby Wambach and currently pregnant Sydney Leroux.
But take yourself back to a similar situation we find ourselves in now. Go to July 2011 in Germany, where Japan conquered the U.S. in the World Cup final. The USWNT returned home and were welcomed as if they were the world champions instead of runners-up. They were on talk shows. They were bombarded lovingly by fans on the streets everywhere they went. It didn’t matter that they came in second. What mattered to fans was the fashion in which they finished second—the dramatic Abby Wambach-headed goal in the 122nd minute against Brazil was the lasting image, not the silver medal.
The lasting image until the 2019 World Cup or the 2020 Olympics will be Christen Press and Alex Morgan botching their penalty kicks, and the shocked emotional faces on the field afterward. The lasting sound will echo as U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo's bitter words after the loss: calling Sweden a bunch of cowards instead of gracefully acknowledging their smart strategy. Sundhage responded to Solo's comments in the best way possible, stating, "I don't give a crap. I'm going to Rio, she's going home."
This type of drama, this display of parity and backs-to-the-wall competition, sets the stage for what happened in Canada at the 2015 World Cup.
Remember July 5, 2015, in Vancouver, Canada? Beating Japan 5-2 in the World Cup final? Scoring four of those goals in the first 16 minutes of the match? That type of dominating defeat the U.S. dealt to Japan is not what was dealt to the U.S. by Sweden on Friday afternoon. It took 120 minutes of play and five penalty kicks for Sweden to beat the U.S.
But the loss meant an early exit from the Olympics. The loss highlighted the pitfalls of being so great for so long and being expected to maintain that greatness forever at all costs.
The bottom line is simple, though. The USWNT have earned the benefit of the doubt that they will be back, and they will be golden.