The United States women’s national soccer team is feeling a new sensation: the sting of Olympic defeat.
Sweden eliminated Team USA from the 2016 Olympic women’s soccer tournament on Friday at Mane Garrincha Stadium in Brasilia, winning the penalty-kick shootout 4-3 after the teams played to a 1-1 draw over 120 minutes of open play.
USA had hoped to win its fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal and become the first team to follow a Women’s World Cup victory with an Olympic triumph the next year. It didn’t come close to happening in the end.
The Americans ultimately suffered in the condensed tournament amid a grueling travel schedule. USA’s roster also was smaller in numbers and contained less depth of quality than last year’s. Retirements and excused absences forced USA coach Jill Ellis to transition to the future — perhaps faster than she might have wanted to. And then, there’s the high-profile labor dispute between players and the U.S. Soccer Federation.
Take these factors as excuses, if you want. Making history is difficult. Doing so with an accumulation of disadvantages is nearly impossible. A historic failure was always more likely, and that’s what happened.
USA controlled the possession and territory and created a host of scoring chances, but Sweden goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl made a host of saves, and her defenders defended with increasing competence as the game wore on. USA’s failure to translate those advantages into goals gave Sweden the opportunity to strike. And did the Swedes ever do so.
Sweden’s Stina Blackstenius ran onto a pinpoint through-pass in the 61st minute and shot past USA goalkeeper Hope Solo with remarkable composure. The textbook counter-attack fell firmly within Sweden’s game plan, and the previously dominant Americans needed two substitutions and around 15 minutes to recover their poise.
Once they did, Alex Morgan made the most of a 77th-minute moment of fortune, sliding a loose ball that had bounced off a defender’s head directly into her path past Lindhal.
USA increased the pressure on Sweden, but wayward shooting and Lindhal’s heroics prevented the second goal from coming in normal time and in the early stage of extra time.
Then the referees took over, disallowing goals from USA’s Carli Lloyd and Sweden’s Lotta Schelin in the final five minutes of extra time. Replays confirmed that neither player was offside, but the game already had taken a farcical turn at its most dramatic moment.
The penalty-kick shootout was the first in Olympic women’s soccer history. Morgan was the first shooter, but her effort was too close to Lindhal, who saved it and put the Americans under immediate pressure. Solo then gave USA a fresh start by saving Linda Sembrant’s shot in the third round.
The climax came in the fifth round of the shootout. USA substitute Christen Press shot over the crossbar, seemingly unable to bear the burden of such pressure. Sweden’s Lisa Dahlkvist converted the winning penalty and made a mockery of Solo’s attempts at distracting her with stall tactics.
Team USA started the Olympics on a high note with a comprehensive win over New Zealand. But cracks began to appear in the next game against France (a 1-0 win), before the draw against Colombia in the Group G finale exposed USA’s vulnerabilities. Sweden merely took the opportunities on offer and made the most of them: score on one of two shots on goal and win the penalty-kick shootout.
And just like that, the United States’ dominance of Olympic women’s soccer came crashing to a halt.
Thumbnail photo via Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports Images