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Dismal Start in Tokyo Shows How Difficult USWNT's Gold-Medal Chase Will Be

Katelyn BestFeatured Columnist IJuly 21, 2021

United States' Christen Press reacts as Sweden's players celebrate their third goal during a women's soccer match at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Wednesday, July 21, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)
Ricardo Mazalan/Associated Press

On a sweaty afternoon in Tokyo, all of the United States women's national team's ghosts came out to haunt them.

It's not clear whether the Americans came out overconfident—buoyed by their 44-game unbeaten streak, their status as world champions and the utter dominance they've tended to display under Vlatko Andonovski—or if they were underconfident, still looking back with regret on the time when Sweden knocked them out in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Olympics.

What is clear is that they were in no way expecting Sweden to show up like it did, and that did something to their brains. There was a small moment 15 minutes in that summed up just how sleepy and switched off the Americans looked. Lindsey Horan, who hadn't done well up to that point under the constant pressure she'd been facing, finally found a little space out wide and fired off a quick pass to Sam Mewis, maybe a dozen yards away. In abstract terms, it wasn't an easy pass, or a perfect one, but it was one that Horan makes all the time, and Mewis receives all the time.

But Mewis was surprised by that ball. She made an awkward lunge for it, too late, and turned it over. That moment, for me, was the perfect microcosm of the 3-0 U.S. defeat: the way most of the team showed up as the worst versions of themselves, and the way-too-relaxed mentality of the group as a whole.

If the U.S. brought a knife to a gunfight, the Swedes (dressed in a slightly more shocking yellow than they've worn in the past, courtesy of Uniqlo) brought, well, a gun. In stark contrast to that 2016 game, where they trolled the Americans for two hours with a brick-wall bunker, this side came out swinging. 

Ricardo Mazalan/Associated Press
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They employed a judicious and beautifully executed press, saving energy by largely leaving the American back line alone and focusing pressure on the No. 6 (Horan in the first half, Julie Ertz in the second), encouraging passes toward the wings, and then relentlessly hounding anyone who tried to get the ball to wingers Christen Press and Tobin Heath. This had a few effects: First, they often won the ball back that way. Second, it basically removed not just Heath and Press, but also Rose Lavelle, playing higher up in the central midfield, from the game.

Strategy aside, the glaring problem for the U.S. was that on the day, its players were not good. Horan had a shocker and Crystal Dunn looked like she was still new to defending; in her defense, it didn't help that she wasn't getting any backup for the dual wide threats of Sofia Jakobsson and the overlapping Hanna Glas (and she did contribute a couple of potentially goal-saving tackles).

And this is what I mean when I say the Americans' ghosts came out to haunt them. Whatever their mentality was coming in, it manifested as what looked like doubt. Horan is arguably the best box-to-box midfielder in the world. The 6 isn't her best position, but she's perfectly capable there, and when she's with her club team in Portland, she's so present in so many areas of the field that she might as well be playing the 6 and the 8 and the 10 all at once. But she's also not Julie Ertz, and you have to wonder if on this stage, against this bogeyman of an opponent, she didn't have that at the forefront of her mind.

Dunn, meanwhile, is not really a left back—plenty of ink has already been spilled on that topic—but she's been playing that role for years and she's gotten quite good at it. She was excellent there in the 2019 World Cup. We know she can defend. But when she went one-on-one against Jakobsson, it looked like doubt and nerves had crept in and hijacked her.

Ricardo Mazalan/Associated Press

All in all, it was a dismal showing by the Americans. However, there are a few reasons for optimism.

First, in having this type of game early in the tournament, they've been reminded of a key fact about major international tournaments: They're really hard to win! The Olympics is especially difficult, coming on the heels of the World Cup, and it's due to more than just chance that no team has ever won the two competitions back-to-back. This tournament is no different, even with the additional year of distance from the U.S.' victory in France. 

Even if you're the clear top team in the world, there are so many ways to screw up and only a few ways to win. You have to do a lot of things right for a lot of games in very quick succession. 

That doesn't sound like a good thing, but for this group, it could be a good reality check. If there's one thing this team doesn't do, it's quit. These players are going to take a long look in the mirror and decide to do better next time.

Ricardo Mazalan/Associated Press

That brings us to my second point, which is that this was a series of individual failures. The players who did poorly know who they are, and they know how much better they can do. That's a much more fixable issue than if this were a systemic problem.

Finally, the second half—especially the last half-hour or so, when a critical mass of fresh legs had subbed on—was much less dismal. Ertz dropped into the 6 and, after getting clobbered a few times, managed to show some steel and make things more difficult for Sweden. Tierna Davidson came on for Dunn and started simply kicking the ball over the top, which almost bore fruit a few times and should have happened way earlier. Megan Rapinoe injected some urgency that Heath had been lacking. With those changes, Horan and Press both became more effective, too.

The Americans should be able to gain confidence on Saturday against New Zealand. That's a game they surely expect to win—but if they've learned their lesson, they'll play every minute of it like they're about to lose.

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