The United States had not lost in 44 matches over 2½ years, a run of dominance that included a World Cup and survived 15 months of a global pandemic. The opening game of the Tokyo Olympics presented the team with a game it wanted more than most. The Swedes had knocked the Americans out of the previous Olympics, and over the past five years their rivalry had only deepened.
Rather than getting revenge against Sweden, the United States saw its unbeaten streak end as it suffered a 3-0 loss, stunning not for the result but for the thoroughness. In U.S. Coach Vlatko Andonovski’s major tournament debut, Sweden left no doubt about which team deserved to win. The Swedes were faster, stronger and better. Rather than validating itself as the favorite, the U.S. squad suffered an early disruption of its goal to become the first reigning World Cup champion to win Olympic gold medal.
“We got our asses kicked,” Megan Rapinoe said. “Didn’t we?”
They sure did. Sweden, which played the Americans to a draw in an April friendly, thoroughly dominated in a manner foreign to the U.S. squad and its legions of fans, many of whom woke up in the wee hours to watch back home. Sweden outshot the Americans, 17-13, a margin that at one point stood 9-2. It gained nine corners compared with the Americans’ three. Sweden pressured, sprinted past and manhandled the Americans, many of whom spent chunks of the evening picking themselves off the turf.
“It’s not just the result,” Andonovski said. “It’s a tough situation to be in. I don’t think this team has ever been in a situation like this. In recent history, I don’t remember this team losing, 3-0. So it’s a little bit of a shock.”
It was an off-kilter night in many ways. When the starters walked out of the tunnel during pregame, Rapinoe and Julie Ertz cupped their mouths and screamed, two all-time greats doubling as hype women.
Tokyo Stadium holds 50,000, but Wednesday evening a smattering of staffers and journalists watched two of the best teams in the world. Tackles boomed through the stadium. The players’ voices echoed off concrete stands.
“I’m not going to lie: That part sucks,” Rapinoe said. “You go to a major tournament, that’s one of the best parts — just the buzz that you get. I’m not saying we should have fans. I don’t think we should, actually. It is what it is. I’m thankful we even have a tournament. It definitely changes the dynamic.”
From the start, Sweden dominated. The Swedes played their back line four across in a straight line that hugged the midfield stripe. They pressured the Americans and prevented them from initiating a cohesive attack. The ball lived in the U.S. half. “We didn’t have the execution or the precision to outplay their press,” captain Becky Sauerbrunn said. If not for goalie Alyssa Naeher making two diving saves, Sweden would have scored early.
“You want to put a mirror up to everyone and just say, ‘Relax; we’re good,’ ” said Rapinoe, who came off the bench in the second half. “You can feel the tightness. Obviously there’s no momentum in the crowds. You can sort of see and feel the space in a different way.”
It seemed inevitable that the Swedes would eventually break through, and in the 25th minute they did. Sofia Jakobsson sent a cross from the right side. Stina Blackstenius streaked into the box, found a shred of daylight between defender Abby Dahlkemper and Naeher and headed the ball into the back of the net. Sweden had struck first, just as it did during the teams’ April friendly.
At halftime, Andonovski subbed Ertz for Samantha Mewis and swapped in Carli Lloyd for Alex Morgan. It made no difference. Sweden continued to hound the Americans into frazzled decisions. In the 54th minute, off a corner, Amanda Ilestedt headed a cross off the post. Blackstenius roofed the rebound, giving the overworked Naeher no chance. In the 72nd minute, Lina Hurtig headed home the goal that handed the U.S. team its first three-goal loss since a 3-0 loss to France at the 2017 SheBelieves Cup.
“We’ve had a long string of wins, and we haven’t had a lot of games where we’ve had to come back,” forward Christen Press said. “I think it was actually really good to have this match. In 2008, we lost our first match and the team won gold. We’re seeing this as a learning opportunity.”
The loss stung because of the opponent. At the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Sweden handed the United States a rare defeat that sparked hostility between the sides, mostly owing to goalie Hope Solo’s infamous crack that Sweden’s conservative tactics made its players “a bunch of cowards.”
In April, Sweden snapped the Americans’ 16-game winning streak when it played them to a 1-1 draw in Stockholm, with only Rapinoe’s penalty in the 87th minute separating the U.S. squad from its first loss since January 2019.
The United States is still regarded as the best team in the world, but when Sweden is present it’s not the best team on the field. In 11 games this year against teams other than Sweden, the United States has gone 11-0 and outscored opponents, 37-0. In two games against Sweden, it has one tie, one loss and a 4-1 goal deficit.
“I wouldn’t say they’ve gotten in our heads,” Rapinoe said. “But they’re one of the best teams in the world.”
Surely the U.S. squad is one of those, too, no matter the ugly result Wednesday. The U.S. team unveiled one of its deepest, most experienced iterations at these Olympics. Even with stalwarts Ertz, Rapinoe and Lloyd as reserves, the Americans’ starting 11 averaged 121 international appearances. Six of them had more than 100. Seven starters played against Sweden in the 2016 Olympic shocker, and 17 of the 18 players won the 2019 World Cup. They are loaded with stars who knew how to win championships.
The opening loss invited the queasy suspicion that the U.S. team’s collection of talent could be inching perilously close to the line between experienced and aging. The Americans were a step slow all game Wednesday. They will have the chance to prove that outcome an aberration starting Saturday against New Zealand, a game the U.S. team suddenly needs if it is to escape a group that also includes Australia.
“We got ourselves into this mess,” Sauerbrunn said. “Now it’s our responsibility to get us out of it.”