The U.S. women’s national soccer team had its worst performance at an Olympics at Rio, capped off by a penalty shootout loss to Sweden this afternoon after a 1-1 draw in the quarterfinal round.
But it is a testament to how excellent the U.S. team has been at the Olympics in the past that characterizes today’s quarterfinal loss as “worst.” The Hammers have won four Olympic gold medals and could have won a fifth but for a Norwegian goal in overtime that came off a pretty obvious handball.
The U.S. had putting energy and effort into becoming the first team to win the FIFA Women’s World Cup and an Olympics in consecutive years, but fell short.
How can this be? We offer 10 factors:
1. The weight of expectations outweighs the weight of waiting. A FIFA Women’s World Cup champion heads into an Olympics with heavy expectations because the team is expected to replicate that level of play. That’s hard to do, even when the realization sets in that, if you mess up at an Olympics, it is three years of waiting for the next world-level championship
2. That 1-year/3-year gap. A lot can happen in one year. Pregnancy and retirements made for enormous changes in the U.S. roster after the World Cup — so much so that the U.S. coaching staff was asked to rely on Mallory Pugh, the 18-year-old, for major minutes. I believe that FIFA should redo its calendar to run its Women’s World Cup during the same calendar year as the men’s tournament so that there is a two-year break before the next Olympics.
3. When loyalty burns you. U.S. coaching staffs have been known to be very loyal to long-time players even when it is evident that they were not at the same level as when they were at their prime. In 2003, that burned the U.S. program when head coach April Heinrichs declared a roster in which three players (Danielle Slaton, Shannon MacMillan, and Joy Fawcett) were coming off major injury, only to see Brandi Chastain break her foot in the opener against Sweden. That meant 80 percent of the roster was suspect. This year, the U.S. carried Megan Rapinoe on the roster fewer than 250 days after knee surgery. Though media were told that she was match-fit, she played barely 32 minutes in any game during the Olympics.
4. Wasting a sub. In today’s game, Rapinoe was brought on as a substitute and had to be substituted during overtime, which is not what you want to do as a coach. This meant that when Pugh had to come out because of an ankle knock, the four substitutions that Jill Ellis used only represented three fresh players on the field when the game ended.
5. The loss of winning influences. Aside from being legends, Christie Rampone (Sky Blue) and Abby Wambach (magicJack) have served as player-coaches for their various pro squads. They might have been useful as volunteer assistant coaches on the U.S. staff, were that allowed.
6. Outside influences, Part 1. It cannot be easy competing when you are at odds with your bosses. I have a feeling that the labor lawsuit over equal pay between the men’s and women’s soccer teams could drag on for a long period of time, given the fact that the next World Cup is so far away.
7. Outside influences, Part 2. A focused team should not have to worry about the field conditions at Estadio Garrincha. After all, it is natural turf, and both teams have to play on it. It’s not as though it was a perfectly flat patch of artificial grass — right?
8. The defense. The back five which had been so solid at Canada 2015 was anything but at Rio 2016. Ali Krieger was demoted in favor of Kelley O’Hara, the central backs were adrift on Sweden’s opener, and Hope Solo has seemingly lost focus and/or confidence.
9. The offense. The U.S. team sometimes looked like a team out of ideas on the attacking end, as if they were expecting Wambach to storm out of that locker room onto the field. The States also attempted way too many outside shots instead of working the ball to beat the goalkeeper, which worked so well last year.
10. Pia Sundhage. Who else knows the U.S. players best? The coach who piloted the Americans to gold in 2008 and 2012 used tactics and defense and a bit of luck to bring Sweden to within two games of a third consecutive gold medal as head coach.
It’s going to be a very different U.S. team heading into France 2019. It is going to be an exciting group led by Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan, Mallory Pugh, and Crystal Dunn, but it is anyone’s guess whether veterans like Hope Solo, Ali Krieger, and Carli Lloyd figure into the plans of the coaching staff.