The defending back-to-back World Cup champion American national women’s soccer team entered the Olympic tournament favored ‘to win’ the gold medal. They had spent the last two years winning almost every game they played. They overwhelmed their CONCACAF opponents to qualify for the tournament. But when the tournament opened against Sweden, their old Olympic nemesis (Sweden knocked the Americans out of the 2016 Olympic tournament), won decisively, 3-0. Four games later, the Americans lost the semi-final to Canada, relegating them to the bronze medal match against Australia.
The immediate post-mortems for the Americans’ failure to achieve their objective of becoming the first national women’s team to win consecutive World Cup and Olympic championships predictably focused on the Americans’ failures – poor coaching, poor play, player age, and politics. This is not to say that such analyses lacked validity, it was plainly evident that the American team neither played as well as expected nor was the coaching at a championship level. However, few analysts, if any, gave the Americans’ opponents credit for playing as well or better on game days.
In the opening game, the Swedes came out aggressively, pressing and trapping all over the pitch, forcing a multitude of turnovers and consistently beating the Americans to loose balls. On the attack, the Swedes constantly overloaded the American left, repeatedly isolating left back Crystal Dunn. Although she singlehandedly stopped a multitude of Swedish moves, she could not stop the Sofia Jakobson cross that Stina Blackstenius headed into the goal for Sweden’s first score, nor could she prevent both of Sweden’s second-half goals, which also came through overload attacks down the American left. Overall, Team USA opened the game as if they were entitled to win gold. By the end, the Americans had been run off the field.
Canadian athleticism dominated the American semi-final loss. The Canadians disrupted the Americans’ ball movement and rapidly closed down or contested almost every American attacking opportunity. The Canadians won nearly every loose ball. And it was the sheer speed of Canada’s Deanne Rose who won the decisive penalty, which Jessie Fleming converted to yield the final scoreline, Canada 1 – USA 0. The Canadians went on to win the gold medal.
To be sure, the Americans were fortunate indeed to even play in the semi-final. During most of the preceding quarterfinal game, Team USA’s Dutch opponent controlled play, except for a three-minute period in the first half during which Sam Mewis and Lynn Williams combined twice to score for the Americans. Still, the situation looked grave for the Americans after Kelly O’Hara’s 80th-minute penalty, but for some reason, the Dutch coach did not assign red-hot forward Vivianne Miedema (sitting on a double at the time) to take the spot-kick, and U.S. goalie Alyssa Naeher easily saved a weak Lieke Martens shot. Naeher was the hero again in extra time, saving two Dutch penalty kicks to keep American hopes for gold alive.
Even in the bronze medal match, Australia went toe-to-toe with the Americans for the entire game, and the Matildas were only an inch (on a Sam Kerr header that hit the post) from forcing extra time and potentially rendering Team USA without a medal for the second straight Olympics.
It can be argued that the American team’s sub-par performances across the tournament made Australia, Canada, The Netherlands, and Sweden look better than they actually are. An American defense that had allowed one goal in the previous thirteen games, let in ten goals during this tournament. Time and again, historically rock-solid defenders were pulled out of position, leaving opponents with open opportunities to score. Midfielders and wings frequently failed to get back on defense, allowing opponents to create overlaps and scoring opportunities. Defenders Kelly O’Hara and Tierna Davidson surrendered penalties, one that could have sent the U.S. out during the quarterfinals, and the second that lost the gold.
Offensively, the Americans were both impatient and lacking in creativity. Their passing seemed to produce as many turnovers as completions. U.S. midfielders could neither move the ball from defenders to attackers nor could they control the game by passing it among themselves. In nearly every game, NBC commentator and former national team player July Foudy recognized this problem and stressed that the American players needed to settle down, string some passes together, and move the defense around to create more scoring chances. Even Megan Rapinoe admitted after the tournament that American passing and trapping had been poor.
Ten times, U.S. players put the ball in the back of the net, only to have the goal disallowed because the scorer or a player in the buildup to the goal had been offsides. According to Julie Foudy’s in-game commentary, the high frequency of offsides calls reflected an uncharacteristic lack of cohesion among the players on the field. For some reason, the American players seemed like a pick-up team that had never played together before, despite their being the oldest and most experienced team in the tournament.
Going into the tournament, many analysts argued that the Americans’ second team was as good as its starting eleven. To capitalize on this apparent strength, Andonovski rotated his starting line-up every game. Meanwhile, opponents’ coaches kept their starting line-ups constant while using the extra subs allowed to rest key players or change game dynamics. In soccer, team cohesion and confidence are built by playing together. Frequent squad rotations denied the Americans familiarity with their teammates’ movement tendencies so that passes could be timed and weighted for success. Andonovski’s squad rotations turned an asset into a liability.
On the other hand, the age of American team members was not a major factor. No American played harder than 39-year-old Carli Lloyd, and 35-year-old Megan Rapinoe was her usual effective self when she was on the field. Nor was politics a factor unless it bubbled behind the scenes in the locker room. And if it did, it was probably more about team issues such as decisions about playing time and starting or substitute roles.
Although the U.S. Women’s national team was favored to win Olympic gold in Tokyo, they were very lucky to win the bronze medal. The Swedish, Canadian, and Dutch teams outplayed the Americans, and the Australians played them toe-to-toe. Sub-par coaching led to and compounded substandard performances on the field. The Americans’ rock-solid defense was shredded for ten goals. Team USA’s impatience, lack of creativity, and poor passing stymied the offense. Although age was not a significant factor in this tournament, it is clear that Team USA will need to get younger, more athletic, and play much better to win a third consecutive World Cup title.