By U.S. women’s national team standards, a 3-0 loss in a major competition is borderline embarrassing. Not only has the USA never lost by that margin at the Olympics, but the thinking is that it should never happen to the No. 1-ranked team in the world, tournament favorites and defending World Cup champs, who happen to be on a roll of 44 games unbeaten. It’s caused consternation in the fan base.
The 3-0 defeat to No. 5-ranked Sweden was not good, but it was also an anomaly and a product of several factors that all contributed to the heaviest USWNT defeat in 14 years.
New coach in his first big tournament
The broadcasters were clamoring for it and you were probably shouting the same thing at your screens: “Can the U.S. hold the ball? Can anyone keep it?” It was the viewer’s natural reaction to what was occurring in the game: The USA rushing forward in attack, promptly coughing it up, and Sweden coming right back down their throats the other way. The pattern repeated itself over and over again. It may have been productive for Sweden, but it was stretching the USA apart and the Americans desperately needed to stop the cycle.
Granted, it was head coach Vlatko Andonovski’s first appearance in a major tournament. Perhaps he was reluctant to change up some things only 15-20 minutes into that first game in response to some adversity. Still, it was fascinating that none of the players felt the need to try to bring calm to the game, manage the situation and give the team a chance to settle down. As the minutes went by, it was as if the USA was growing increasingly impatient, running at Sweden faster, launching more long balls and taking more risks in the attack.
One of the themes of the lead-up to the Olympics was Andonovski’s experiments: his implementation of in-game tactical tweaks and system changes to challenge his players to adapt to situations on the fly. The U.S. players and coaching staff faced one of those situations in the first half against Sweden, and we didn’t see any visible adjustment that helped to change the dynamic or slow Sweden’s momentum.
Sam Mewis (below) was consistently one of the top three performers for the USA during the lead-up to the Olympics. Even when she wasn’t starring, she always did enough on the field to make her irreplaceable. But the first adjustment that Andonovski opted to make down 1-0 to Sweden was taking her and Alex Morgan out at halftime. Neither had a great first half, but Mewis has had those barren spells before and eventually breaks out of them.
The thinking was probably that keeping Lindsey Horan’s creativity in midfield was necessary since the U.S. was playing from behind. But Mewis contributes to the attack in other ways with her work rate, her runs and her ability to combine. It would’ve been interesting to see what she could’ve done during what was a better second half for the USA.
Obviously, the team missed Julie Ertz
The reason the USA was better in the second half was the long-awaited insertion of Julie Ertz into the match. We witnessed just how much of a game-changer she can be in her return from the injury layoff. The knifing attacks by Sweden dissipated — fewer instances of waves upon waves of Swedish attacks — and Ertz’s quality raised the midfield’s buildup play. And that’s not necessarily a criticism of her replacement Horan, who complements Ertz well, but doesn’t play the position in the same way.
Sweden boxed up Horan to start the match and overwhelmed her with numbers in that first half. It begs this question: If Ertz (below) was fit enough to play for a full half, was she fit enough to start the game and perhaps go for 60-70 minutes? Andonovski will be quizzed about her plenty in the days to come, especially in light of the next two matches taking on even greater importance after the Sweden loss.
Too many players had off games
Better put: There were players who had a game in which their bad plays outnumbered the good ones. Crystal Dunn had too many giveaways and Abby Dahlkemper had defensive lapses; to be fair they were put under constant pressure by the hard-charging and often hard-pressing Swedes and they were rarely comfortable.
In attack, Tobin Heath did not make an impact, Alex Morgan didn’t make a good play on the one header chance she had, and Christen Press seemed to be on an island for long stretches of the first half, with her involvement picking up in the second half with the improved U.S. play.
Given that Olympic soccer coaches have to select an 18-player matchday roster from the 22 available players, it makes for interesting debate who sits out these games. Catarina Macario (below) was one of those players who didn’t make the cut for the USA squad against Sweden and her exclusion was surprising.
Entering the match, it was not unfathomable to see Sweden taking the lead in the game. It’s the No. 5-ranked team in the world and the Swedes already did it during April’s exhibition against the USA. Macario’s playmaking ability and 1-on-1 skills are special enough to have deserved a spot on the roster in that eventuality when the team is typically in need of ideas. In hindsight she would’ve made for an interesting option, but Kristie Mewis (Sam’s sister) was selected ahead of her. At these Olympics, it’s Macario vs. Mewis for the back-up midfielder spot on the bench. The other is the odd player out.
USWNT need better competition
The narrative is already making the rounds about this being the “wakeup call” that the USWNT needed to bring it down from the lofty heights of a 44-match unbeaten streak. And while there is truth to that, it’s not because of any superiority complexes that might have developed over time.
It’s more that the USWNT needed to remember what it was like to play against an elite opponent. It hasn’t played FIFA-ranked top 5 teams all that often outside official competition and as we saw with Sweden, those teams present entirely different problems to solve. Since the end of the 2019 World Cup, the USA has played a grand total of two of them in friendly matches (including Sweden in April, a 1-1 road draw), and the COVID-19 pandemic surely played no small role in that.
Post-pandemic, it’s clear that the American women’s team needs to get back to more frequent matches against the Euro powers — No. 2 Germany, No. 3 France, No. 4 Netherlands, No. 5 Sweden, No. 6 England. They only played those teams three times since that July 2019 World Cup final. If soccer playing is also problem-solving on the field, the American players need to face the problem teams more often.
The final result was bad and the seeming lack of composure was not a positive, but it was not the worst performance for the USA. It might feel worse than it actually was because of how dangerously effective Sweden was at slicing up the USA, seemingly at will. But the USWNT also created a similar number of opportunities and hit the post twice. Still, this game will go down as the one Sweden dominated.
And that might be the byproduct of this game. Sweden showed that if you can hit the seams of the U.S. defense and do it at speed and with numbers, even the Americans will succumb: They can be pulled out of position and stretched every which way. “They found a lot of space on us,” Megan Rapinoe pointed out on two separate occasions during the postgame presser. And the U.S. attackers are not making it back to help defend those spaces during those quick transitions.
Attack the space? Attack the USA? Many opponents, including the low-ranking Olympic tuneup variety, don’t even bother. They know they don’t have the athleticism, power, speed and strength to keep up with the USWNT. But the handful of countries that do — and they are all among the elite — might try to be a little more daring in the near future. Just like Sweden.