It wasn’t supposed to end so quickly. Even for a team in transition, the United States Women’s National Team was supposed to storm through the early stages of the Olympic tournament, before facing a real challenge in either the semifinals (against Brazil), or the gold medal match (Germany or France could await). The doubts that came from losing Abby Wambach, as good as she may not have been toward the end, and especially Lauren Holliday to retirement weren’t supposed to matter just yet. Sweden, unfortunately for the American fanbase that fell in love with this women’s team five years ago and rejoiced just last summer, had other plans. And so, three days after playing in the dreaded Manaus hotbox, the United States is going home from this tournament – with not even a bronze medal to show for it.
They had their chances, especially after Sweden opened the scoreline in the 62nd minute; that goal seemed to wake the United States up from its malaise, as did the key substitutions of Megan Rapinoe and Crystal Dunn, the latter of which tore holes through the Swedish defense with skill and pure pace. Still, though, something didn’t seem right, as crosses sailed just wide, shots went harmlessly into the stands and passes were misplaced at the feet of the defense.
It took a lucky bounce and a quick Alex Morgan reaction to even get the United States on the scoreboard and into extra time. But even with two substitutions bringing in fresh legs (Christen Press for Rapinoe, who was still clearly not fit, and Lindsey Horan for the injured Mallory Pugh, who was incredibly impressive, even when disregarding her youth), the United States could not find a way into shooting positions inside the box. What they were missing, it seemed, was both the calming presence of Holliday, which allowed Carli Lloyd to run rampant at last year’s World Cup, and the towering headers of the Wambach of days past. There just wasn’t a Plan B aside from “whip the ball in and hope.”
That almost worked too, as Lloyd, as she so often does in big games, scored a beautiful header – that was then called back due to a clear foul on the American captain. On the other hand, Sweden probably had cause to complain, as a goal from Lotta Schelin was wrongfully called off for offsides. The tension reached a boiling point as we headed into the great equalizer in soccer: penalties. Just like in Germany five years ago, however, the United States came up short, as an Alex Morgan saved attempt and a Christen Press shot that sailed high above the goal sank American dreams: 4-3, Sweden advances, and the United States is left to pick up the pieces of an early exit.
So what does this mean for the United States? Aside from the immediate heartbreak of losing their chance to be the first women’s team to ever win the World Cup and the Olympics in back-to-back years, this result isn’t too foreboding. One of the storylines heading into the summer tournament was the changing of the guard, so to speak, as a veritable youth movement had infiltrated the side. Some of the stars of the tournament for the red, white and blue included Dunn (24), Pugh (18), Horan (22) and Morgan Brian (23). Further down the line are role players like Press (27) and Julie Johnston (24, and who missed the first three games with a hamstring injury). And of course, Alex Morgan is still around and scoring key goals, as she did today, at the age of 27.
This is the first time that the United States failed to make at least the semifinals in a major tournament, but that disappointment should float away as these players get more experience. Sights now must be set on World Cup 2019, when key contributors like Lloyd, Solo and Rapinoe will be reaching the end of their primes. If the young stars-in-the-making continue their ascent, it doesn’t seem farfetched that today’s nightmare in Brasilia will seem like a distant memory come France 2019. In the meantime, the United States will rue their missed chances against a Swedish team that was very up to the challenge, but they’ll leave the Olympics with a bright future and hopes of becoming the first team since Germany in 2007 to repeat as World Cup champions.