August 12, 2016
The most devastating result in U.S. women's soccer history
By Michael Lewis
Sooner or later, it was going to happen.
Sooner or later, the United States women were going to slip and not reach the final four of a major FIFA tournament for the first time.
Well, sooner happened Friday afternoon.
As you already probably know, the Americans were eliminated from the Rio Olympics in the quarterfinals, even before they could reach the medal round.
The irony is that Pia Sundhage, who coached the red, white and blue to their last two gold medals in 2008 and 2012, was the architect of this stunning upset as Sweden squeaked past the reigning Women's World Cup champions, 4-3 in penalty kicks after playing to a 1-1 draw after 120 minutes of regulation and extratime in Brasilia, Brazil.
Quite frankly, this is the most devastating result in the history of the U.S. women's national team, dating back to the program's inception in 1985.
Those semifinal defeats in the 1995, 2003 and 2007 Women's World Cups were difficult enough to take, but none really had been this excruciating and this early in the competition. At least the Americans reached the semifinals in those other competitions. This time they didn't.
Yes, that was a humiliating 3-0 defeat by Germany in 2003, although two of those goals were scored rather late in the match with the USA trying to equalize.
It's difficult not to forget what transpired at the 2007 semifinals. Brazil ran all over the USA in a 4-0 debacle as then head coach Greg Ryan decided to pull regular goalkeeper Hope Solo prior to the match for Brianna Scurry, who hadn't played that much that year.
Letís up it in perspective: Of the dozen previous major tournaments, the USA had finished no lower than third. That included seven Womenís World Cups and five Olympics.
The expectations were great, not unlike the Brazilian menís side, which is expected to win the World Cup every time, regardless where it is held.
So what exactly happened in Brasilia?
While Hope Solo's howler in the 2-2 draw in the Group G finale was bad enough, she wasn't the reason why the USA did not move on.
The USA's Achilles Heel was its inability to score goals. And it's not necessarily how many you score, but when.
First of all, the reigning world champions scored only six times in four games, which is very un-American-like. Now we don't exactly expect the USA to have every game like its 5-2 triumph over Japan in last year's Women's World Cup final, but something wasn't clicking.
Teams like to bunker in against the USA. We've seen it before and we'll see it again, probably forever.
Sweden deployed that strategy against a team that Sundhage knows all so well and it paid off. The Swedes struck first off a counterattack and the USA's relentless pressure finally paid off for the equalizer. The Americans tried for the winner in regulation, but did not convert.
When you play a team that bunkers, it is important to score first (or things get even worse) and as early as possible. Teams that are able to keep the game scoreless get emboldened as the game when on and the Swedes did exactly that.
Score first and the opposition must open up and take some chances to score goals. Then the favored side has a better opportunity of extending its lead.
It's also about being clinical in the penalty area and the Americans didn't do it enough against Sweden and some of their earlier matches as only four players scored goals.
Let's break it down:
* In the 2-0 Group G opening win over New Zealand, it worked to perfection. Carli Lloyd scored in the ninth minute and Alex Morgan tallied a minute into the second half.
* In the 1-0 victory over third-ranked France, Lloyd scored in the 64th minute for the top-ranked women's team in the world in the battle of titans.
* And in the 2-2 tie with Colombia, the USA had to chase the game for a while as Catalina Usme connected on a pair of free kicks (26th and 90th minutes) and Crystal Dunn (41st minute) and Mallory Pugh (59th minute) countered for the USA.
Against Sweden, Morgan scored the Americans' lone goal to equalize in the 77th minute.
Four players canít carry a team, no matter what the level of play or competition. Where was everyone else?
And perhaps there is something to be said of the curse of Manaus.
Of the eight men's teams who played there at the 2014 World Cup, seven sides lost their next game. The theory was that teams were sapped of their energy in the heat and humidity of the Amazon.
Like it or not, the USA women followed suit. They endured that forgettable 2-2 draw and having to travel to the capital of Brazil, while Sweden played its group finale in Brasilia and did not have to travel. It certainly didn't hurt the Europeans.
One other thing. At this juncture it is easy to second guess head coach Jill Ellis for putting a not fully fit Megan Rapinoe on an n 18-player roster for a tournament in which teams had little time to rest. Ellis was hoping that Rapinoe would duplicate what Morgan did last year in Canada when she returned to form as a part-time player. Rapinoe, the teamís most creative player, essentially was relegated to half-hour appearances. While she made an impact on the USAís lone goal against Sweden, it was difficult to burn a substitute for a substitute.
As I put the finishing touches to this story, I had Germany's 1-0 quarterfinal win over China on the TV.
Former USA international Danielle Slaton, and a silver medal winner, said it well about Germany:
"Great teams find a way to win every when they are not playing well."
Perhaps this American team was not as great as we thought it was. That might be sound sacrilege to the teamsí most devoted fans, but you have to face reality.
One thing remains clear:
No team, not any of the great American, German, Japanese or Norwegian sides have been able to win back-to-back championships.
It seems impossible, but then again having the United States of America's vaunted women's team watching from the sidelines during the medal round at the Rio Olympics wasn't imagined by very many soccer observers.
It is now reality and the USA and Ellis have to figure out and fix what went wrong.