Two days before the Tokyo 2020 opening ceremony, the world champion, Olympic favorite, seemingly unstoppable U.S. women’s national soccer team added a new and unfamiliar sobriquet to that list: losers.
The U.S. women entered its opening match of the Olympic tournament Wednesday against Sweden unbeaten in their past 44 games, including 22 wins and one draw under coach Vlatko Andonovski, who took over from Jill Ellis after the 2019 World Cup. They left it reeling; you know it must have been bad when a 3–0 scoreline flatters the losers. The U.S. was sluggish and disjointed and thoroughly outmatched. The players looked either jet-lagged—they have been in Japan for two weeks now—or like they had never met each other before. Nine of the 11 starters also started the World Cup final in 2019, and the other two played extensively in the tournament.
It was a credit to Sweden that the U.S. played so poorly. The Swedish midfielders followed their U.S. counterparts deep into U.S. territory, refusing to give them time to turn and face upfield so they could find forwards Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath, and Christen Press. The U.S. offense became a series of dinks and dumps as it worked the ball left and right looking for a lane in which it could advance the ball, but the Americans’ passing wasn’t good enough to manage it. Sweden appeared to win every 50-50 ball, and if it missed one, then it harried the U.S. into a rushed pass or a poor touch that created another within seconds.
By contrast, when it created a midfield turnover, Sweden played vertically. Runners swarmed forward as options, like a backyard football game where half the receivers are told to go long on every play, and the U.S. never seemed to have enough defenders to both get pressure on the ball and track those runners, which led to the first Swedish goal from forward Stina Blackstenius.
It could have been many more in the first half alone. Andonovski tried to staunch the bleeding by subbing in midfielder Julie Ertz—still recovering from a knee injury that has sidelined her for months—and while Ertz’s anticipation cut Sweden’s number of chances, she couldn’t stop the Swedes from scoring two more after halftime. When it did keep possession, Sweden created constant overloads down the flanks, counting on the fact that neither Press nor Heath wanted to spend the whole game in their half playing defense. The U.S. was slow to get its fullbacks help, and that’s where the Swedish capper came from, a simple combination around Crystal Dunn, and well-aimed cross to Lina Hurtig.
The U.S. hit the post twice, but this was not the result of mere bad luck. This was a once-in-a-decade type of thrashing; the U.S. lost 3–0 to France in the SheBelieves Cup in 2017, but before that you have to go back to the 2007 Women’s World Cup semifinal against Brazil to find another U.S. loss by three goals or more. It’s difficult to overstate the degree to which the Swedes seemed to have the Americans’ number. Rose Lavelle cuts inside, and a Swedish player has already jumped into her lane and is heading the other way. Substitute Megan Rapinoe shoots from a narrow angle instead of passing but fails to fool Swedish keeper Hedvig Lindahl.
If the U.S. rallies, then this loss becomes its wake-up call, the first-act fight that shows the hero that change and growth are still necessary, with Sweden playing the role of Mr. T. It was also the most likely casting for the USWNT’s nemesis. This is now the fourth major tournament in a row that the two nations have played each other. After a 0–0 draw at the 2015 World Cup, Sweden upset the favored U.S. on penalties in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Olympic tournament in Brazil—the first time in the history of the program that the U.S. had been knocked out of either the Olympics or the World Cup before the semifinals. The Americans received some measure of vengeance during the 2019 World Cup, beating Sweden 2–0 in the group stage. But this Olympic match may be the one that turns a rivalry into a blood feud. As the old Klingon proverb goes, revenge is a dish best passed back and forth, like a regifted fruitcake.
If the U.S. doesn’t bounce back, then it becomes a harbinger, and perhaps for more than just this tournament. The Americans’ ultimate triumph in 2019 overshadowed the fact that its wins over Spain and England in that tournament were relatively nervy, and that was with Ertz at the height of her powers as the world’s best defensive midfielder. This U.S. team hasn’t shown many signs of decline––again, it had not lost in 44 games prior to this one––but Ertz’s injury, and the lack of a reliable backup at that spot, lowers its ceiling.
The Swedish team would go on to win the silver medal in Rio, losing to Germany in the final match. In 2019, Sweden finished behind the U.S. but advanced deep into that tournament; it beat Canada and Germany before losing in extra time to the Netherlands in the semifinals. Point being, Sweden is good, and the Netherlands is good, and Great Britain, Brazil, and Canada are good. Japan may not be as good as it was in 2011 when it won the World Cup, but it could still be dangerous if it can gain an edge from home field advantage even without fans. Australia is, in theory, good, but had lost five in a row going into the Olympics, so in practice maybe not.
The situation for the Americans could be even worse. The Olympic tournament has just 12 teams in it, and only three of them come from Europe, where most of the world’s top squads hail from. UEFA used the 2019 World Cup as its qualifiers for the Olympics, slotting in the three teams that advanced furthest, which included semifinalists England and Sweden and runners-up the Dutch. That means powerhouses eliminated in the quarterfinals of that tournament—France and Germany—and rising stars Spain and Italy all aren’t here. The path at the next World Cup in 2023 will be even more treacherous, like a Minesweeper game on a higher difficulty. The U.S. is going to have to find a way to win tough games like this one more often in the future.
That World Cup also might include a newly empowered challenger. The large amount of turnover in the small field means that the U.S. is the only former Olympic gold medalist in the Olympic tournament. Only Japan and the U.S. have won World Cup titles. Which means that unless the reigning world champs recover––certainly possible, though few who watched the game Wednesday would bet on it––or the hosts pull through, then somebody new is getting an origin story out of this Olympics, the international title that proved it could beat the world’s best. Maybe it will be Sweden, who already has.