Megan Rapinoe and her USWNT teammates can’t believe what transpired against Sweden. (Mandi Wright-USA TODAY Network)
By Michael Lewis
I know you read the headline, but I will repeat it: There is plenty of blame to go around.
I just don’t know if I have enough fingers to point out the problems of the U.S. women’s national team’s 3-0 debacle of a loss to Sweden Wednesday.
It was the worst Olympic performance and worst result in the Summer Games in team history. In the Americans’ previous two Olympic setbacks in 2000 and 2008, they had dropped 2-0 decisions, both to Norway.
On Wednesday, they were tentative, lethargic and mistake prone.
That is not the USWNT we have grown to know and love over the past three-plus decades.
Let’s give some credit to the Swedes. They came in with a game plan and executed it tactically and technically so well.
So, where does the blame go for the USWNT? Well, just about everyone.
Let’s start with the coach.
A coach’s job is like a conductor. Outside of making tactical adjustments and timely substitutions, the rest is out of his hands. So, coach’s job is to prepare a team during training sessions.
From the opening kickoff to the final whistle, the USWNT rarely looked like a team that was prepared and followed a game plan.
At times, the Americans looked like a team that was playing its first international match instead of the one that is defending Women’s World Cup champions and one that is gunning for its fifth gold medal.
Either head coach Vlatko Andonovski’s preparation was horrible, he didn’t get the message across, or the players weren’t listening.
A bad scenario, no matter what.
I also have to take issue with Andonovski’s Starting XI.
He decided to start Tobin Heath instead of Megan Rapinoe. I would have benched Alex Morgan and played Pinoe. We saw what transpired. Morgan was a non-factor and Rapinoe replaced Heath, who looked decent, in the 64th minute. While Rapinoe, the Golden Boot and Golden Ball winner from France 2019, did not make her mark in a substitute’s role, we don’t know if she could have given the team a boost early on.
Then comes the case of Julie Ertz, who hadn’t performed in a competitive match since incurring an MCL injury with the Chicago Red Stars in May. How important is Ertz to the team? She is a midfield destroyer who can win the ball and quickly transition into attack.
Ertz didn’t come until halftime, replacing Lindsey Horan, a capable midfielder who started in her place but did not make an impact. By then it was too late, even though she was an improvement. Sweden took its first-half momentum into the second half and continued to role.
Now, I don’t know Ertz’s exact physical condition, but she must start in the next game, even if she plays only a half match. It is vital for the USA tot establish itself early. Ertz needs to start against New Zealand for the USA to set the tone and not wait until the second half.
And about the midfield, many a team’s success relies on the three, four or five players they deploy in there. A good midfield can make up for a lot of sins, cloak backline deficiencies and set up the attack and score key goals.
We rarely saw that Wednesday. Sam Mewis, who was Best Women’s Player in England in a poll conducted by ESPN FC, did nothing in her 45 minutes and was subbed out at halftime. That is embarrassing for someone who is expected to be an impact player and not a bench player.
Rose Lavelle was the best of the midfielders, coming close with a shot off the post late in the first half, stoppage time.
The Americans continually lost the ball at midfield, sometimes much closer to the goal – Abby Dahlkemper and Crystal Dunn – are Exhibits A and B.
Dunn, whose soccer DNA tells her to attack (the Rockville Centre, N.Y. native has excelled in the midfield or as a forward in the National Women’s Soccer League), has become one of the world’s best left backs, but she was exposed Wednesday as Sweden attacked her side of the pitch. She made more errors in one match than what we have seen from her over the past two years.
Yes, the scoresheet says that goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher conceded three goals. But if it wasn’t for several early saves, the Swedes could have been winning 3-0 at the half. If your best player in a losing 3-0 effort is your goalkeeper, then you are in deep trouble.
Now, it is difficult to stay away from the cliche about must-win games because every match in a tournament is a must-win.
This goes double for the USA when it meets New Zealand, 2-1 losers to Australia Wednesday, in Saitama Saturday.
The Americans must register three points or face the pressure of needing a win. Yes, in an unforgiving tournament like this one, third-place teams with 1-2 records mathematically can reach the quarterfinals. Eight of the 12 teams will qualify for the knock round.
You don’t want to enter your final group match against Australia and the fabulous Sam Kerr needing a win to keep your hopes alive.
You don’t want to be on the other side looking in at the knockout round, not in a forgiving tournament in which eight of the 12 teams advance to the quarterfinals.
The USWNT not getting out of the group stage of any major tournament?
That would be blasphemy. The Americans have to make sure that doesn’t happen, starting at their next training session and then Saturday.
It was bad enough Wednesday. The USWNT can’t afford a repeat performance, or the team will be packing for home earlier than planned.