Julie Ertz looks pensive as she walks off the field. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
Momentum can be so fleeting.
One second you have it and are flying high and the next second you wonder where it went and scrambling to rediscover it.
In its 6-1 thrashing of New Zealand Saturday, it appeared the U.S. women’s national team had rediscovered it after the nightmare performance against Sweden in their Olympic soccer tournament opener.
Then came Australia Tuesday.
For those of you angry fans who want to start a class action suit against the IOC and the USWNT for losing several hours of sleep they would never get back, good luck.
And good luck to the American side the rest of the way. It’s going to need it after watching them in the opening round.
In an uninspired performance, the USA battled, and I use that term lightly, Australia to a scoreless draw in the final Group G match for both sides.
The result boosted the Americans into the quarterfinals with a 1-1-1 record, the worst group stage finish in seven appearances in the Olympic Games. It also was the second time the USA failed to win its group, taking second to China via goal differential in 1996.
After watching the three group matches, I have this deja vu feeling going back to the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The Americans won their group but struggled. Something was amiss, something was lacking. They didn’t have the same polish as they did a year before when they captured the hearts of the nation and the 1999 Women’s World Cup championship.
That 2000 team managed to reach the gold medal match and played Norway to one of the epic matches in women’s soccer history, only to lose in extratime, 3-2.
Twenty-one years later, much has changed in the women’s soccer universe, many of it for the best. Teams have improved greatly. The gap has been shortened between the USWNT and the rest of the world. We kept hearing how the rest of the world has caught up to the USA and yes, that’s true.
There are fewer easy games in the Women’s World Cup and Olympics, especially in the knockout round. Each match is a potential trap and loss.
In a match reminiscent of the West Germany-Austria game at the 1982 World Cup in which both sides rarely attacked so they could reach the knockout round, the USA did what it had to do to move on. The Australians probably do as well, although they were awaiting results of later matches to see if they were among the top two third-place finishers to see.
The USWNT will play either the Netherlands or Brazil in the quarterfinals. Neither opponent will be easy to get past.
The Americans defeated the Dutch in the 2019 World Cup final and Brazil has some of the best attacking players in the world. And the Brazilians are coached by Pia Sundhage, whom I think is the best women’s coach on the planet.
Yes, that is the same Pia Sundhage who guided the USA to gold medals in 2008 and 2012.
And yes, that is the same Pia Sundhage who masterminded Sweden’s elimination of the USA at the 2016 Rio Summer Games.
The Americans need to find a way to rediscover their momentum pronto or face a similar fate as what transpired five years ago.