The U.S. women’s national team is out of the Olympics. In a stunning upset, the Americans suffered their earliest loss in a major tournament on Friday to Sweden. And yet, from early on in the match, it felt like the No. 1-ranked USWNT was very vulnerable.
On paper, you could say the Americans lost in the roll of the dice that is penalty kicks — but that’s not really true. You could say that the USWNT players just didn’t have good games and that may be true, but it’s not really the full picture. In some ways, it looked like the game plan itself didn’t set the players up to succeed.
The directive from the top seemed clear within minutes: When in doubt, just loft the ball into the box and push up field. Crosses from the flanks. Long balls from the back end. Just get the ball up the field and hope that Alex Morgan or someone can do something with it.
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It felt like a regression to a previous era of the national team when the team expected pure athleticism and speed would win games. And that’s a strategy that can still have utility for the USA — but it can’t be the main strategy, and it’s especially unwise against a tall, physical team that bunkers deep like Sweden did on Friday.
If anyone knows about the USWNT’s athleticism and how to deal with it, it’s Pia Sundhage, who benefited from it when she coached the USWNT to back-to-back Olympic gold medals in 2008 and 2012. Her game plan was a defensive one: Have the Swedish players sit deep in their own half and jam up the midfield in a 4-5-1 formation; then, catch the attack-oriented USWNT pushing too high and break past them with a quick counterattack.
The game plan was executed to perfection in the 61st minute. Midfielder Allie Long sent a long ball toward the box that Nilla Fischer headed back toward the USA’s end as Swedish players sprinted on the counterattack. The Americans were caught too high and Stina Blackstenius raced ahead of centerback Becky Sauerbrunn before beating Hope Solo one-on-one.
The most disconcerting part for the Americans is that they knew what Sweden was going to do. As coach Jill Ellis told reporters on Thursday: “They will park the bus. They will sit as low as they possibly can and then look to transition [on counterattacks].” It happened just as Ellis predicted.
Afterward, Ellis felt the result didn’t match the way the game played out. "In truth, other than the final conversion piece, I thought it was the best game we played in terms of our movement and ball work,” she said afterward. “We knew we’d have a lot of the ball. We knew they’d be incredibly disciplined, but it was just that final piece today."
Sweden celebrate the victory over the U.S. (Photo credit: EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images)
Ellis has a point. The USWNT took 26 shots to just three for Sweden, and they had a couple chances go off the woodwork. But they also took a lot of chances that just weren’t good and were unlikely to result in a goal, which skews the stat. The USWNT seemed to be all about urgency and pressure to attack, attack, attack when a more measured approach may have provided some balance.
The USWNT officially finished the match with some 64 percent possession, but they lost the ball constantly in an effort to force their way into Sweden’s end. Losing possession meant opportunities for Swedish counterattacks, and it took just one perfectly-executed one to stop the USWNT. It was when the Americans moved the ball on the ground around the box that they looked their most dangerous outside of a frantic first three minutes. Crystal Dunn, as a substitute with fresh legs, was an instant game-changer as she tried to dribble her way through the final third and find a pass.
And that was another problem: Wasted substitutions and poor game management.
Megan Rapinoe was a controversial inclusion on the roster from the moment it was announced. Following an ACL injury, she played her last competitive game in October and would be making her return in the middle of an Olympics. Fitness and form were areas of concern.
Christen Press, Julie Johnston, Meghan Klingenberg and Tobin Heath of United States react after their 1-1 (3-4 PSO) loss to Sweden. (Photo by Celso Junior/Getty Images)
So when Rapinoe came on in the 72nd minute and the USWNT took a defender, Kelley O’Hara, out of their lineup, Ellis had her reasons. The U.S. was behind and Rapinoe is excellent at crosses, which the USWNT had been hoping would lead to a breakthrough for the whole match. And indeed, Rapinoe helped win back the ball for the spell of possession that led to the USA’s equalizer.
“I felt I needed to get Megan in when we were chasing the game to get a set piece goal or some good service in the box,” Ellis said.
But Rapinoe was never going to be fit enough for extra time and Ellis subbed her out in the 99th minute. She subbed Rapinoe out for another midfielder even as Tobin Heath, arguably one of the USWNT’s most creative and best attackers, had been pushed to a fullback defending position to replace O’Hara after the equalizer. Not only did her squad on the field make little sense, but the USWNT would’ve been surely helped by having an extra pair of fresh legs on the field if they didn’t need to use two substitutions on Rapinoe.
The USWNT didn’t look that dominant in the match, but they didn’t look dominant at all for much of the Women’s World Cup last summer either, which they still won. There was a pretty clear precedent for the USWNT under-performing yet finding ways to win. But what Ellis and the team discovered last summer — either on their own or through yellow cards, a point many people will debate — was that changes in tactics were necessary. It was a shift in midfield that opened things up for them and led them to a world championship, but a similar revelation never came at the Olympics.
“Even after the goal went in for them [Sweden], we just had to continue to keep believing and playing the way we wanted to play,” Ellis said on Friday. “Did I think [the breakthrough] would come? I did.”
Sweden had looked very poor in the group stage of the tournament and the expectations were high for the U.S. to get past them. But Sundhage adjusted her tactics and set a conservative, tight game plan to eke out a stunning victory. The Americans just didn’t seem prepared to match it.