MELBOURNE, Australia — As the players of the U.S. women’s national team walked one-by-one through the mixed zone outside Melbourne Rectangular Stadium to speak with reporters, it was obvious they’d rather not.
Sophia Smith and Julie Ertz were crying. Kelley O’Hara stared at the ground, crestfallen. Everyone was reeling from a dramatic penalty kick shootout that saw Sweden prevail 5-4 after a goalless 120 minutes. Sunday’s loss sent the Americans home in the round of 16, their earliest exit in a major tournament ever.
A reporter asked Alex Morgan whether the players had been set up to succeed by the coaching staff, including manager Vlatko Andonovski. “I mean, I can’t even process that question, sorry,” she said before walking away.
The time for pointing fingers and placing blame will come soon enough. It has to with the Olympics coming in less than one year.
The process, of course, starts with looking at the 120 minutes against Sweden in which the USWNT couldn’t find a goal, at a World Cup in which the Americans entered as favorites but could never click into gear.
“We dominated the game and created way more chances than them,” forward Trinity Rodman said after the match. “The only thing we were missing was a goal.”
Rodman was talking about the 0-0 stalemate against Sweden, but she could have been discussing the USWNT’s group stage, too. In those three games, the team could muster only one win and two draws for its worst-ever five points in a World Cup group stage. That meant the No. 1-ranked U.S. couldn’t top its group and was forced to face No. 3-ranked Sweden in the round of 16 instead of a far easier opponent.
After the clamoring from fans and critics for Andonovski to make some tactical changes following the listless group stage, he did so, switching the central midfield to a so-called double pivot where Emily Sonnett played a defensive-oriented role with Andi Sullivan. It was perhaps prompted by the yellow card suspension of midfielder Rose Lavelle, but it worked — Sullivan and Sonnett worked well together, and Sweden had trouble getting through the middle of the park.
The U.S. looked better against Sweden than it had all tournament, and yet the same problems persisted. The Americans couldn’t create enough high-quality scoring chances, and whenever they did they couldn’t finish.
Some credit goes to Sweden goalkeeper Zecira Musovic. Her diving parry of a scorching Lindsey Horan volley in the 53rd minute was excellent. Her block on Morgan’s 90th-minute header was just as good. In all, Musovic made 11 saves.
Many of the USWNT’s chances just weren’t enough to test the Swedish keeper, though, either shot straight at Musovic or missing the goal entirely. The U.S. players never put on their shooting boots at this tournament, which is difficult to explain from such an attack-oriented team.
At the 2023 World Cup, the team managed just four goals in four games. In its previous eight World Cups, the U.S. averaged 17.3 goals per tournament.
It’s not as if there weren’t chances.
Against Sweden, the Americans generated about 1.3 expected goals (xG), a measure of whether the spots that players shot from should be expected to result in goals. Over the course of the tournament, the U.S. generated more than nine xG yet scored only four, which makes it the most underperforming team at this tournament by that metric.
Again, the players and Andonovski said they felt they deserved the win. Again, that didn’t matter.
“We deserved to win this game,” Andonovski said. “We created enough to win this game. I thought we put up a fight, a battle. We represented this country proud.”
The yips in front of goal even translated to the game-deciding penalty shootout where three players — Smith, O’Hara and Megan Rapinoe — didn’t even put their shots on frame. If they had, the Americans would have won that shootout thanks to goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher‘s save on Rebecka Blomqvist.
This probably all seems like a player problem — the players ought to be able to finish their chances — but it was only two years ago under Andonovski that the Americans had trouble scoring in the Tokyo Olympics, which left them settling for a bronze medal after some poor performances. In that tournament, the failure to finish looked different — the USWNT had nine would-be goals called back for being offside — but it was the problem behind the team’s shortcomings.
This will go down as perhaps the low point for the U.S. from an on-field perspective. The team’s worst major tournament finish before this had been a quarterfinal exit in the 2016 Olympics at the hands of, you guessed it, Sweden.
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Morgan faulted herself for not scoring.
“As a forward, you’re judged deservedly on goals and there was none from me,” she said. “I’m really disappointed with myself. I wish I could’ve provided more for this team.”
After the match, as the Swedish players walked the perimeter of the field and waved at fans as Abba’s “Dancing Queen” blared over the loudspeakers. The Americans huddled.
“There wasn’t much to be said,” Rodman said of that huddle. “I think everyone was just feeling the feelings. The main thing was that, at the end of the day, we will always be a team no matter who’s on it and who’s off of it. We just need to feel what we need to feel because everyone’s feeling the same but different things in different parts of their journeys.”
Indeed, for some of these players, their international careers are over. Rapinoe had announced before the tournament she’d retire. Ertz said after the exit that she would never wear the crest again. But then there are young players such as Rodman, Smith and Alyssa Thompson — the goal scorers the U.S. will need — who figure to be the future of the team.
The lessons from this disappointment will be difficult to process. Throughout the tournament, the players were asked how they could improve their finishing and there was never a satisfying and concrete answer.
Either way, the World Cup moves on without the USWNT.
“It’s hard to think of moving on as it kind of still feels like you’re going to get ready for the next game,” Ertz said, “and that’s not the case for us.”