There was a moment in the 15th minute of the USWNT's 1–0 loss to Canada on Monday that summed up the whole game and also was reflective of the United States' run throughout the tournament.
Sitting wide-open in a comfortable space between Canada's midfield and defense, Tobin Heath received the ball from an also-wide-open Kelley O'Hara. She turned to dribble toward the back line, with midfielders Quinn and Desiree Scott chasing her, and left back Allysha Chapman dropping ahead of her. Rose Lavelle was making an overlapping run toward the space left behind Chapman, and Lynn Williams and Alex Morgan were both hovering near the Canadian defense, ready to get on the end of a ball over the top.
Instead of taking any of those three options—over the top to either Morgan or Williams, or behind Chapman for Lavelle to run onto—she passed weakly straight across to Lavelle, forcing her to hold her run. Lavelle pinged the ball right back toward Heath, who immediately turned it over. The punchline: Scott then dribbled directly out of bounds.
That pretty much said it all about how both teams played. Neither side was good. One side got really lucky at the right moment and won.
When looking at the U.S.' tournament as a whole, it's clear how this moment is a microcosm of it. O'Hara was right to pass to Heath. Heath was right to dribble into space. Williams and Morgan were right to be holding their runs on the back line. But somehow, when it counted, Heath couldn't figure out what to do. Plenty of things went right, until they didn't.
Much ink will probably be spilled on what this loss means to the U.S. Is this an indictment of coach Vlatko Andonovski tactically? Has the handover from one generation to the next happened too slowly? Where do they go from here?
I'm not convinced any of it means anything. There's truth to a lot of different criticisms: Andonovski probably overthought and overplanned some of the tournament, seeming to have lineup rotations scripted out from the beginning. He probably wasn't bold enough in putting some trust into the hands of his less experienced players. It's not hard to imagine Catarina Macario or even Kristie Mewis injecting some life into this game and finding a way to take it to extra time.
But you can also see the reasoning behind those decisions. The pace of the Olympic tournament is unlike anything else in the sport, so of course players' minutes have to be micromanaged.
It's easy to criticize Andonovski's decision to trust his veterans after the fact, but how many times have Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd conjured a bit of last-minute magic to get their team through? Macario might have scored an equalizer, or she might have choked.
As much as we can criticize individual coaching decisions or individual performances, there's no one concrete factor to hang this loss on. Rather, it seems clear that these players have been a bit off, for reasons we don't know but can guess at, since the tournament started.
The USWNT is not alone in this. Simone Biles, the best gymnast of all time, got to Tokyo and found that her body, under the weight of enormous expectations and a year older than she'd planned for it to be in these Olympics, suddenly refused to cooperate. Nyjah Huston, who has won more prize money than any other skateboarder in history, got to the finals and choked.
These are athletes who do not miss in big moments. Things aren't quite right for anybody.
But that's obvious, right? We all just lived through what was the hardest year of many of our lives. Some of these players took that whole year off from soccer, and those who didn't only got sporadic training and playing time.
These games are happening with no spectators. All athletes are used to that now, but these players all had a window where they got to play for crowds again, only to be yanked back into the cavernous empty stadiums of the pandemic. Even family members couldn't attend; Alex Morgan left her 14-month-old daughter at home.
They're living in a bubble in a foreign country—and as that goes, you have to wonder if the whole experience isn't a little too reminiscent of how life was a year ago, whether players were stuck at home, hunkered down in England or living in the strict NWSL Challenge Cup bubble.
Of course those conditions were more or less the same for every team, but none of them carry the same expectations as the best in the world. Being anointed a favorite before the tournament has even started—see also Biles and Huston—is a colossal pressure.
For some on this team, this is almost certainly their last international tournament, but nobody's going to remember Lloyd or Rapinoe or Becky Sauerbrunn for these Olympics.
My bet is that this won't be how we remember Andonovski's tenure, either. How can you judge anybody by what they did or didn't do in the second year of a deadly pandemic?
With all of that said, the tournament isn't over. The U.S. still has a shot at bronze, in what will hopefully be a more entertaining match against Australia than the last one. This team always expects to win, and we always expect it to win.
But in the grand scheme of things, a bronze medal at the Olympics wouldn't so bad, would it?