There was a moment shortly after the start of the second half of the U.S. women’s soccer team’s semifinal defeat to archrivals Canada that encapsulated the frustration of the Americans’ 2020 Olympics.
In the 48th minute, U.S. winger Tobin Heath and fullback Crystal Dunn combined down the left sideline, not too far into the Canadian half. The move got the pair past the first line of Canada’s defense and into space. Canada was retreating toward its own goal; Rose Lavelle was charging into the area they had just vacated in front of the goal. After their interplay freed Dunn on the outside, Heath tried to provoke a decision from the next defender, charging forward with abandon to force the Canadian to choose between staying with Dunn and the ball or tracking the new, dangerous runner. For a brief moment in what had been a cagey, physical affair for the first 45 minutes, the U.S. seemed to spot daylight.
Instead, Dunn’s early cross into the center hit Heath as she ran by. The ball deflected all the way past the end line for a Canadian goal kick.
Throughout the tournament, the USWNT—reigning World Cup champions, undefeated in 44 matches entering these Olympics—just never seemed to be quite on the same page. Despite the talent on the opposing rosters it faced, the U.S. always seemed first and foremost to be beating itself.
But for a while during Monday’s defeat there was hope. There is no other team in the world the USWNT has as much experience playing, or beating, as Canada, and that comfort showed. Even as it struggled, again, with its passing and attacking movement, there was a sense that it was less unnerved by the Canadian physicality than it had been in its earlier matches. The U.S. controlled this game in a way it wasn’t able to against Sweden, the Netherlands, or even Australia. The Americans had more possession time and three times as many shots and shots on goal as their opponents. Canada hadn’t beaten the U.S. women since 2001. The U.S. had never lost a competitive match to its northern neighbors.
But its advantage was a slight one, and it wasn’t able to convert it into goals. Most of its shots barely troubled Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé. Canada, meanwhile, turned the thinnest of chances into its winner. After a long kick forward was flicked on, U.S. defender Tierna Davidson was tracking back to clear it when Canadian substitute Deanne Rose ran around her blind side and tried to win the ball. Davidson made contact on the edge of the box. Rose fell, and didn’t even appear to protest as she pushed herself up, but a VAR review confirmed the USWNT would face a decisive penalty kick late in the second half for the second straight game.
Unfortunately for the U.S., its hero from the quarterfinal against the Netherlands, goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, exited the game in the first half with a knee injury after an awkward landing. Her replacement, longtime backup Adrianna Franch, is a two-time National Women’s Soccer League Goalkeeper of the Year who was on the roster for the World Cup in 2019. She is more than qualified to step in, even in an Olympic semifinal, even if the glacial pace of the U.S. roster’s turnover since that tournament means she’s only appeared in a half-dozen games for her country. But she couldn’t get to Jessie Fleming’s penalty kick. (It was a good one, and it’s unlikely Naeher would have stopped it either.)
Canada didn’t threaten after the goal, but the U.S. barely did either. Its best chance was a header from Carli Lloyd that went over Labbé and off the crossbar. The U.S. hopes of following its World Cup triumph with an Olympic gold medal ended with a whimper.
Now it’s up to U.S. manager Vlatko Andonovski to make the proper diagnosis of his team’s failure. Only a few members of his squad—most notably Julie Ertz, Naeher before the injury, and Davidson before the penalty—could be said to have played well in Japan. The team looked less than the sum of its parts. The offense was disconnected from Alex Morgan and the target forward role she played so well in 2019. Rose Lavelle’s skill on the ball wasn’t the devastating weapon it was in 2019. The U.S. midfield was largely too passive and easy to play through. The forwards rarely drew fouls in dangerous areas, leaving the U.S. team without the chances from free kicks and penalties that powered Megan Rapinoe to the Golden Boot in 2019.
Treating this kind of teamwide malaise doesn’t necessarily mean culling the entire team, or even squiring off its oldest players with a testimonial and a watch. There has never been a mandatory retirement age from the USWNT; this is a team that has always placed a premium on veteran leadership. Christie Rampone at 36 in 2011. Rampone at 39 and Abby Wambach at 35 and Carli Lloyd at 32 at the 2015 World Cup. Carli Lloyd at 36 in the 2019 World Cup. Carli Lloyd at 39 at the Olympics in 2021.
Lloyd—who is open in her admiration for Tom Brady’s longevity and who has called her team’s run to the World Cup title in 2019 “absolutely the worst time of my life,” because she thought she should be starting (she appeared as a substitute in all seven games)—does not seem ready to go gently into that good night. Rapinoe, at 36, has been reduced largely to a substitute’s role in these Games, but is still probably the best U.S. free kick taker, and certainly its best penalty taker. Becky Sauerbrunn, also 36, is still the captain and a vital organizational presence in defense. None of them was as effective in these Olympics as they were in the World Cup, but there are elements that they each still bring to the team that are not easily replaceable.
But something has to shake out the staleness that permeated the team’s time in Tokyo. The team has been built around this core group of veterans and its strengths for so long that it’s become insular and rigid. Those three, and the other eight players on the roster over the age of 30, can’t keep playing forever. Eventually the U.S. is going to have to learn to do without them, or the players are going to have to learn to adapt how they play to take advantage of the strengths not just of this particular squad but of the pool of players as a whole.
There is young talent who can push into the team; the next two years will be about incorporating players such as Midge Purce, Sophia Smith, Ashley Sanchez, Catarina Macário—all of whom are under 26. It’s tough to know which of these will be the spark the U.S. needs. None of them has more than 10 appearances for the national team in her career. Macário, the only one on the Olympic roster, played for just six minutes the entire tournament. Many of the younger players are performing well in the NWSL this year, but the cancellation of the 2020 season and its replacement with the abbreviated Challenge Cup tournament severely cuts into their sample size. But they are good players, and they deserve the chance to prove that they can benefit the team on their own terms—and not just try to fill the shoes of Christen Press or Tobin Heath or Sam Mewis or whomever. We saw a hint of what this might look like in the quarterfinals against the Netherlands, when new starter Lynn Williams sparked the sputtering U.S. offense with a goal and an assist. But even though Williams got the start again versus Canada, Andonovski pulled her again in the first wave of (noninjury) substitutions, letting some of the same veterans attempt to close things out.
Andonovski’s tenure as an NWSL manager was marked by a willingness to adapt, and there’s little for him to lose from introducing more flexibility into his roster-building and tactical decision-making. In one scenario, the team evolves into the version of itself that it will be at the next World Cup, in Australia and New Zealand. In another, the new look becomes a valuable backup plan to be wheeled out when the old ways prove lacking, as they did for most of these Olympics.
All those decisions are for another time. The 2023 World Cup is a little less than two years away, but first the USWNT has to play for a bronze in the only international third-place game that actually matters. Retirements, realignments, and the full postmortems—maybe they all got sick at the same time?—will come after Thursday’s match against Australia. The old gang will get one last chance at a tournament prize, if they can get out of their own way.