If you were having flashbacks to 2016 while watching the United States' shootout against the Netherlands, the players weren't. In a tidy parallel with their quarterfinal exit against Sweden five years ago in Rio, the Americans couldn't avoid penalties Friday with a 2–2 draw—only this time they had ice in their veins.
Whatever happened in the game itself, they looked every inch a championship team as they handily won with just four kicks.
During the run of play, this game was more of a head-scratcher than the U.S.' previous outings. Offensively, the first half was the best it's played all tournament. Players who started their Olympics looking uncharacteristically scared and clumsy—Lindsey Horan, Crystal Dunn and Samantha Mewis—found their feet and looked like world-class soccer players again when playing out of pressure.
Horan consistently did well in beating the multiple defenders who often mobbed her on the wings or outside the Netherlands' 18-yard box, dribbling and passing out of that pressure at different times. Dunn kept up with Dutch winger Shanice van de Sanden and joined the attack with overlapping wide runs, setting in motion the sequence that led to the Americans' first goal. Mewis, in the No. 10 role, used every bit of the considerable space the Oranje midfield often ceded as it shifted toward one side or the other.
The real highlight of the first half, though, was Lynn Williams, who made her first start of the tournament. From the whistle, Williams was effective in harassing the Dutch defense and combining with Mewis and Carli Lloyd to counter-press high up the field.
The Netherlands seemed unprepared for her to be as dangerous as she was, with its back line often squeezed narrow, leaving her lots of space to operate out wide. She punished it for that decision, setting up the U.S.' equalizer with a lovely cross that found Mewis' head.
In the second half, though—and especially after Vivianne Miedema scored her second goal nine minutes in—the U.S. started slipping. Everything got steadily sloppier. Defensively, much of the team looked switched off, and in possession, the ball wasn't finding its target.
Numerically, the first half had looked one-sided, with the U.S. maintaining considerable advantages in possession, duels won, passes and passing accuracy. By the end of extra time, it led only in duels won, and that was with a relatively narrow advantage of 53 percent to 47.
Extra time is almost always ugly; in this game, that ugliness started around the 60th minute for the Americans. The Netherlands was unlucky not to score a third goal, especially when Kelley O'Hara gave away a cheap penalty with a foul she should know not to make. Alyssa Naeher came up big with a save, foreshadowing what was to come.
This wasn't the first time Naeher saved her teammates from themselves—she also came up with a penalty save to keep the U.S. in the World Cup in 2019—but the penalties spoke to more than just her clutchness.
Despite having fallen apart in the hour or so before the final whistle, the Americans took those kicks like they knew they were through to the next round. Rose Lavelle, who's been one of the bright spots for the U.S. throughout the tournament, set the tone with a powerful chest-high strike well out of Sari Van Veenendaal's reach.
Christen Press, who famously shanked her 2016 attempt over the bar, took a big windup and then placed the ball cleverly in the lower left-hand corner. Finally, Megan Rapinoe's winner to the top right was downright cocky.
Or maybe it was Miedema, who led off the shootout, who set the tone. The Dutch striker had been excellent, scoring both goals for her team. She'd been excellent all tournament. Her kick, which Naeher saved, wasn't even particularly bad. But her expression as she trudged back toward her team—frustrated, defeated, queasy—said it all. She knew her team was done in that moment.
Sometimes it all comes down to vibes.
The Americans will face Canada in the semifinals, which is as favorable a matchup as they could have hoped for. Despite talk of a rivalry, it's been years since Canada has seriously competed with the U.S.
There's plenty of room for improvement: Abby Dahlkemper was bad enough again that she could have cost her team the game, and, of course, the whole squad needs to figure out how to stay alert for 90 minutes. But all things considered, the Americans should look forward to the semifinals with confidence.
They won ugly against the Netherlands, but they got the job done.