Five-ring Circus

The USWNT Better Hope Its Coach Learned the Right Lesson From Its Quarterfinal Win

They escaped a talented Netherlands team on penalties. But it nearly got away.

Naeher dives and saves the ball in the net
U.S. goalie Alyssa Naeher saves the first penalty from Vivianne Miedema of the Netherlands during the women’s quarterfinals match at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at International Stadium Yokohama on Friday, in Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan. Francois Nel/Getty Images

In the final, most crucial moments of its Olympic quarterfinal against the Netherlands, the U.S. women’s national team finally appeared dominant against a good team.

While the match itself was a back and forth affair that finished 2–2, U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher left no doubt in the penalty shootout, stopping the first and fourth Dutch kicks to go along with the penalty she saved in regulation. Her teammates didn’t miss any of theirs, with penalty specialist Megan Rapinoe putting the deciding kick into the top corner to send the U.S. into the semifinals.

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Naeher is the hero, and has historically been so good at facing penalties that the U.S. must like its chances any time it can keep the score tied. But merely getting to the shootout against a strong Dutch side is a victory for a team that had struggled in these Olympics, and required key contributions from an unlikely source.

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Early signs were worrisome. The Netherlands scored on its first real chance, star forward Vivianne Miedema wrangling a deflection and turning and firing before the U.S. defenders could react. Miedema has mastered the striker’s art of creating space for herself with a single step or a shift of her weight, escaping defenders’ challenges with the economy of movement of a bullfighter.

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But the U.S. was able to battle back soon after. The Dutch defense lacked the swarming ferocity of Sweden’s in the opener. It’s tough to criticize the Netherlands for giving up three goals to Zambia or two to China when it was scoring 10 and eight respectively against those opponents, but now it seems telling that the other strong team in its group, Brazil, kept a clean sheet against both those opponents. (Brazil and the Netherlands played to a high-scoring 3–3 draw in their match.) When the Dutch weren’t able—or stopped trying—to control the game with their offense, they looked vulnerable.

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That difference in defensive intensity gave the U.S. room to breathe that it never had against Sweden. The Americans looked more comfortable stringing passes together, and the Dutch midfielders were often a step behind when tracking the runs of Lindsey Horan and Sam Mewis out of the midfield. On the first U.S. goal, they lost Mewis entirely, allowing her club teammate Lynn Williams to pick her out with a cross.

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It was Williams, who played just 16 minutes in the group stage, who made the biggest difference for the U.S., at least prior to Naeher’s heroics in the shootout. Minutes after her assist, Williams scored the Americans’ second goal when a poorly headed clearance bounced to her off a corner kick. It was a simple sort of play, but the U.S. didn’t beat Sweden or Australia to many crucial loose balls like that. It needed that infusion of energy that she provided.

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Williams is not an unknown quality. She’s 28 years old, a three-time National Women’s Soccer League champion, a former NWSL MVP, who throughout her career has averaged nearly a goal or an assist for every 90 minutes that she plays. She’s appeared 38 times for the USWNT, but never in a World Cup or an Olympics before now due to the plethora of talented forwards soaking up those minutes. (To give you an example, the next-most-inexperienced forward on the U.S. roster, Christen Press, has 152 caps.)

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Williams wasn’t even supposed to be on this team. Olympic rosters are typically capped at just 18 players, five fewer than squads are allowed for the World Cup. However, due to the pandemic, the rules were relaxed just weeks before the tournament to allow each team to include their four alternates, of which Williams was one. These players provided the U.S. with basically all of its new blood; all four of the alternates added to the team were players who weren’t brought to the World Cup in 2019, while just one player who wasn’t there was included in the Olympic squad’s initial 18.

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And yet, despite her impact on the game, despite her relatively well-rested legs, U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski took Williams off in the 58th minute, replacing her, midfielder Sam Mewis, and forward Carli Lloyd with Christen Press, Rose Lavelle, and Alex Morgan. The Netherlands had already tied the match, with Miedema finding space outside the box and hitting a well-placed shot that Naeher was slow to react to. But the subs, who have all featured heavily at these Games, seemed to restore the team’s offense to its uninspiring status quo from earlier in these Olympics. The Dutch did well to wrangle Lavelle, who terrorized them in the final in 2019, and Press had a poor game made worse by the offside flag. None of the substitutes, including Rapinoe, who came on a few minutes later, did enough to challenge the tired Dutch team as they stretched themselves looking for the winner. The Dutch chances kept coming. The U.S. had better luck denying Miedema the ball than it did stopping her once it got to her. All the U.S. danger came from players who ended up ruled offside.

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But Naeher was there to save the Americans, most importantly in the 81st minute when she batted away Barcelona star Lieke Martens’ penalty to keep the game level. The Dutch dominated the early periods of extra time, but burned themselves out before the end so that even an exhausted USWNT could create chances against them. The game devolved into trench warfare, exhausted midfielders lobbing long balls over the top of one another, which the U.S. had the better of. Press and Morgan both put the ball into the net only to have them negated by offside calls.

Looking forward to the semifinal, the good news for the U.S. is that Canada also went to penalties in its quarterfinal against Brazil, meaning its players had to endure the same additional 30 minutes on a short turnaround as the Americans. With both teams playing their fifth game in 12 days, it’s unlikely that the U.S. will face a blitz as intense as the Swedish one that so unnerved it in the opener. But if the U.S. is going to take the initiative and dominate during the run of play, then Andonovski needs to consider how to better spread the minutes out beyond his usual rotation, to give players like Williams a chance to show what they can do.

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