USWNT players have won only once in five games at the Tokyo Olympics. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
If the headline above this story sounds familiar to you, well, it should.
It was used for the U.S. women’s national team debacle of a 3-0 defeat to Sweden in its opening match of the Tokyo Olympics July 21.
That was 13 days ago.
That held, unfortunately, for the squad, holds true for the team’s latest result on Monday, a 1-0 loss to Canada in the semifinals. That knocked the Americans out of gold medal consideration for the second successive Summer Games. They were eliminated in the 2016 Rio Olympics quarterfinals.
At least the USA still is in the running for a bronze medal, and that’s better than nothing.
But it is far from the best, which is what the U.S. soccer community expects.
This year’s team had some audacious goals as it tried to become the first team to win a Women’s World Cup and an Olympics in the same cycle.
Let’s face it, the USWNT has spoiled us, winning an unprecedented four World Cups, including the last two (2015 and 2019). The team also secured four gold medals and a silver.
Anything less than reaching the championship game and winning a title is considered a failure.
So, what went wrong?
There were enough reasons that led a path to the bronze medal match or even an earlier exit from the tournament.
Getting off on the wrong foot
Playing Sweden in the opener, we all knew what was coming from the USA’s No. 1 nemesis these days. The Swedes are well coached, well organized and played a smart, physical game against the Americans. It worked to perfection with that three-goal triumph in the opener. Entering the gold medal match with Canada, the Swedes have run the table with a perfect 5-0-0 mark.
The USA never recovered from that loss. Yes, there was the 6-1 victory over New Zealand, the weakest side of the group. But the Americans accumulated exactly two goals in their four other matches. That’s not the USWNT we have grown to love over the years.
The USWNT has won only one game in five attempts at these Summer Games. Its record is an embarrassing 1-2-2 entering the bronze medal match against Australia. A shootout in the knockout round is considered a draw in the record books, regardless of the outcome of the shootout.
Had the Americans played New Zealand in their opener, would they have fared better? Who knows?
The Group of Death
To be fair, Group G was the most difficult of the three four-team groups. Three, count ’em, three teams reached the medal round – Sweden, Australia and the USA. So, navigating that group wasn’t an easy task.
Something was missing on the field. There wasn’t enough spark. Whether it was the lack of team chemistry, general lack of quality passes and shots or some other problem, it had fans and media of the team scratching their collective heads. The team looked disjointed during Monday-s 1-0 semifinal loss to Canada. Give the Canadians credit for putting together a plan to limit the USA’s effectiveness. But the Americans have had a history of solving those obstacles in the past.
Who would have thought the USA would have been shut out three times, a record at major international tournaments.
That is something the coaching staff must take care of quickly.
We don’t know what transpired internally, but whatever solutions were proposed or tried, they did not work on the field.
Team for the aged
Much was made of the team’s average age, which hovered around 30. Many world championship teams – men and women – have used thirtysomething players en route to glory. But the USWNT had too many players have the age of 30 at forward.
The team’s average age at that position was 33, which is old for a major international tournament. Now, these players are exceptional performers. Players such as Carli Lloyd (39) and Megan Rapinoe (36) are legends and will be elected on the first ballot into the National Soccer Hall of Fame when they are eligible. But given their age, it wasn’t fair to expect them to fill the net on a regular basis.
In fact, neither player has scored a goal yet.
Both players have said that getting a year off due to the COVID-19 pandemic actually helped them recover from a grueling 2019 campaign and World Cup. The production wasn’t there.
Rapinoe was the Golden Ball and Golden Boot winner at the 2019 WWC and Lloyd, who struck for that historic hat-trick in the 2015 WWC final and who became the only player to connect for the winning goal in consecutive Olympic gold medal matches.
Don’t get me wrong. They’re still good players. But losing a half step or something else can be devastating for a player at the international level. Probably more so for a forward because of the great demands and spotlight of that position.
Attack? What attack?
Which leads us to this.
I just looked at the leading goal-scorers and was astonished on what I saw. No one has scored more than one goal. That has never happened to the USA at a major international competition. Rose Lavelle, Sam Mewis, Alex Morgan, Christen Press, Lynn Williams and Lindsey Horan have found the back of the net. Actually, the leading scorer for the USWNT to date has been own goal, two by New Zealand.
You don’t need the tournament’s top scorer to spark a team, but someone or multiple players who can put the ball into the back of the net more than once in a competition is essential.
And oh yeah, I haven’t forgotten all those offside goals that weren’t counted.
Of course, it’s important to have an inspired midfield to set up forwards in dangerous positions and situations. There weren’t enough quality passes and feeds.
The middling midfield
Which leads us to this.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and again and again.
The midfield is the engine of the team. Repeat: the midfield is the engine of the team.
While Julie Ertz played well after returning from the MCL injury she suffered in early May, the rest of her partners there did not play up to their potential. That included winning balls, not losing balls in the middle of the pitch, setting up teammates and even put some dangerous shots on net.
You need ball winners, not losers, in this platoon. Lose a ball at midfield and the opposition has a shorter path to the goal.
Mewis did not live up to expectations as a dominant player who can excel on both sides of the ball. Horan and Lavelle lacked consistency as well. And remember, Lavelle was named the Bronze Ball winner at the 2019 Women’s World Cup. She did not come close to that performance in this tournament.
Would have liked to have seen Catarina Macario play more. She didn’t even dress for Canada. She is a player of the future. Hopefully a star of the future.
I like Vlatko Andonovski. He is a personable guy who gets along well with his players and the media.
But you have to wonder how hot of a hot seat he is sitting on today, especially when a team with such great expectations grossly underachieves, not only in results but overall performance.
I realize he had to rotate players in a tournament that had only two days of rest between group matches and that was played in the heat and humidity, but some of his coaching decisions were head scratchers.
For example, there was one blaring one in Monday’s 1-0 loss. He started Lynn Williams, who scored and worked so well with Mewis in the quarterfinals against Denmark. Mewis, who scored in that match as well, started the game on the bench. She finally came on in the 81st minute for defender Kelley O’Hara. Mewis never got an opportunity team up with Williams, who was removed for Christen Press on the hour. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to start the two together and hope for some more magic?
The great equalizer. No one anticipates an injury. Alyssa Naeher was forced to leave the match with a knee injury on the half hour. She was replaced by Adrianna Franch, a talented goalkeeper with limited international experience.
Franch wasn’t tested until Jessie Fleming’s 75th-minute penalty kick.
Would Naeher have stopped the PK? Your guess is as good as mine. Now, I’m not blaming Franch for the goal or the loss. But when you lose such a quality keeper such as Naeher, one of the best in the world at her position, it certainly wasn’t a positive.
The rest of the world
We’ve been hearing it for years, that the rest of the world is catching up to the USA.
It is true. Every year we see a few more teams taken important or giant steps toward good or elite status.
Spain, which I still think will win a WWC in the next decade, and France did not qualify for the Tokyo Olympics because they weren’t among the top European finishers at the 2019 World Cup. Ironically, the USWNT eliminated those two sides in the Round of 16 and quarterfinals, respectively.
By 2023, I have no doubt some other teams will emerge as improved sides. There are fewer and fewer easy games at major international tournaments.
The degree of difficulty will only become greater and the USWNT needs to find ways to keep steps ahead.
It is a two-way street. Some of the leading USWNT have to find ways to play in leagues such as England and France. On the flip side, the National Women’s Soccer League has to recruit some of the best players from other countries so younger players on the USWNT bubble will improve.
Yes, it is a delicate balance but that is one way to improve players’ decision-making and experience, especially the younger ones.
A historical perspective or two
The two longest unbeaten streaks in USWNT were ended in the semifinals of major international tournaments.
Under head coach Greg Ryan, the USWNT had a 51-game streak that was snapped in that utterly forgettable 4-0 defeat to Brazil in the semifinals.
Ryan was sacked shortly thereafter. A third-place finish didn’t help matters, but Ryan helped seal his fate when he benched regular goalkeeper Hope Solo for the legendary Briana Scurry, even though Scurry hadn’t played a competitive match for a few months.
The Americans had a 44-match unbeaten streak ended by Sweden in this year’s tourney.
Hey, I have nothing against losing, but I have always viewed any long winning or unbeaten streak with an axiom that nothing lasts forever. Now, I’m not saying to lose one on purpose, no way. But the longer a streak goes, the more probable it is that a team will lose, especially given the quality opponents in an Olympics or World Cup.
Back to the future
The 2023 Women’s World Cup in New Zealand and Australia is closer than we think, only two years away. Concacaf qualifying begins this fall, but the USA probably won’t have to compete for a spot there until the fall of 2022, if history and the calendar tells us anything.
It is time for a new generation of players to take over.
The USWNT can ill afford to use the aging base for 2023.