4 questions for the USWNT after their Olympics failure

The USWNT reacts after losing to Sweden in the quarterfinals of the Rio 2016 Olympics. (Photo by Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

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When the U.S. women’s national team lost to Sweden on penalty kicks and exited the Olympics in the quarterfinals, it was a stunning result that seemed to take everyone by surprise. The U.S. is the world’s top-ranked team and they’ve never not played in a gold medal match.

Now, a lot of questions are left lingering. Here is a look at the biggest ones that fans and even U.S. Soccer may be asking:

1. Does this result mean the USWNT is bad?

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No. Up until Friday’s loss to Sweden, the USWNT had an incredible 25-year record of dominance at the highest levels. The USWNT made it to the gold medal match of five straight Olympics and they never placed worse than third in a Women’s World Cup. A streak like that could only last so long and it had to end sooner or later. That’s just sports — every team, no matter how good, is going to lose. After some shaky moments in prior tournaments, it’s surprising it didn’t happen sooner.

What we can probably take away from some of the USWNT’s stumbles in recent years, including their latest one, is that women’s soccer is now more competitive and has more parity than it has ever had. This is a good thing. As other countries put more resources into their women’s programs and find success, it tends to have a cyclical effect where support for the women’s game grows in those countries. Every women’s tournament has been more competitive than the last, and there’s a lot of room for that trend to continue for the foreseeable future.

2. Will Jill Ellis be fired?

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That’s very doubtful. She will take heat for some of her decisions, as every coach should when failing to meet expectations. Most glaringly, the decision to bring Megan Rapinoe to the Olympics turned out to be as bad as many people thought it would be. With two wasted substitutions on Rapinoe in the quarterfinal, the USWNT finished out the match with winger Tobin Heath out of position at right back and a lot of tired legs on the field. That decision, along with others, may not have directly led to the loss, but any of them done differently would’ve likely changed the trajectory of the game and the tournament. The roster slots, substitutions, game management — they are all real questions Ellis must confront and U.S. Soccer will need to assess who on the coaching staff other than Ellis dropped the ball, too.

But to fire Ellis over a quarterfinal loss that could’ve gone either way — her first real stumble as coach — would be not just harsh, but rash. The USWNT tended to be wasteful and took some low-percentage shots, but they did still out-shoot Sweden by 26-3 and had their chances to win. It’s not as if they weren’t competitive. Ellis needs to be evaluated beyond this Olympics and, well, her record has been excellent — the USWNT has lost just four times in 66 matches under Ellis.

Some will argue that Tom Sermanni was fired in 2014 for less — his dismissal came in part due to finishing a worst-ever seventh at the annual Algarve Cup. But that certainly wasn’t the only reason he was fired as the federation and players hinted that he wasn’t right the cultural fit and he didn’t have the support of players. Ellis doesn’t seem to have those problems and the players have bought into her as a coach. Managing the personalities and the talent of a top team like the USWNT is no small part of the job, and Ellis has proven she can do that while folding new talent into the team. Oh, and she has also won the World Cup — if that doesn’t earn a coach some leeway, what can?

3. Should Jill Ellis be replaced?

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Probably not, at least not anytime soon. Setting aside that the Olympics aren’t as important as the World Cup to U.S. Soccer, it’s not just about the Olympics result — it’s about the bigger picture of the USWNT program. The USWNT looks as deep as it ever has with a crop of youngsters that will continue to bring long-term stability to the team. Ellis has been tasked with helping the team go through a serious transition following a slew of retirements after the World Cup, including the loss of Abby Wambach, who the team’s attack was built around. Though the transition looked very good at times, it was still a significant and difficult shift Ellis has had to oversee, and Ellis is still overseeing it.

Ellis has also taken some strides toward making the USWNT a more sophisticated team. It hasn’t always looked it — it definitely didn’t for stretches in this Olympics — but the team has moved toward a more versatile, fluid tactical approach. Against weaker opponents it has looked much better against tough ones, when direct Route 1 soccer becomes a default. But USWNT’s style has been progressing to keep up with this evermore-challenging modern era of women’s soccer.

That’s not to say that it’s a sure thing Ellis will be coaching the team when the 2019 Women’s World Cup rolls around or that keeping her through the next cycle is the right call. But without another major tournament until 2019, there is no rush to make changes and U.S. Soccer will likely regroup and assess after some time has passed. Although it hasn’t felt like it with the USWNT for a long time, in sports, anyone can lose a game on any given day, and what matters is that the team is continuing to develop talent and create a progressive system.

4. What does the USWNT need to fix now?

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The focus now is on the 2019 World Cup, three years away, and Ellis can begin to address longer-term issues immediately.

First up, she must develop a suitable backup or replacement for Hope Solo. Solo will be almost 38 by the 2019 World Cup and she has said she intends to keep playing, but injury is always a concern and, after signs of shakiness in the Olympics, her performance is now a potential concern, too. Solo’s backup goalkeepers, Alyssa Naeher and Ashlyn Harris, have just seven and eight caps respectively. There don’t seem to be any younger prospects given serious consideration in the USWNT pipeline. Ellis continually chose to start Solo in friendlies over the past two years, even though her backups have precious little experience with the USWNT. It’s possible Ellis and her staff felt that ensuring Solo’s readiness for the World Cup and Olympics was the bigger priority. Well, now that can’t be an excuse. Solo has her records for caps and shutouts — it’s time to stop padding her stats.

The USWNT midfield also has some lingering questions. Not since Shannon Boxx has the USWNT had a “natural” defensive midfielder. The USWNT tends to have a roster built of attacking players where spots are found for them. Just look at Kelley O’Hara at fullback, who has spent most of her career as a forward, and on-and-off holding central midfielders Morgan Brian and Allie Long, who have normally been attacking midfielders. Settling on a defensive midfielder who does that job regularly, is comfortable staying put in the role and can impose herself physically to break up attacks should be a priority.

On the other end of spectrum in the central midfield, the Americans haven’t really had a No. 10 playmaker whose job is to set the tempo of the attack and unlock defenses. Carli Lloyd has mostly occupied that spot on the field, but she plays as a deep lying striker who just roams around looking for goals to poach. Lloyd is incredibly effective at it, but if Lloyd will continue to be one of the keys of the American attack — a big if, since despite her incredible fitness and work ethic, she will be 36 in 2019 — it may be best to accept that she is really a striker and find someone who can orchestrate the attack from that central spot.