Really? Really. Now that’s historic.
It rekindled dark memories of the 2007 World Cup semifinals in China, when the Americans were routed by Brazil, 4-0, prompting an epic Hope Solo meltdown and a coaching change.
Fortunately for the Americans, this mighty setback came at the start of the competition. No one is freaking out (except for fans who pulled all-nighters to watch that mess), and Andonovski’s job is safe (for the moment).
Group play is forgiving. Two matches remain. Eight of 12 teams will advance to the knockout stage. An expected victory over New Zealand on Saturday and at least a draw against Australia on Tuesday would vault the United States into the quarterfinals.
Such a route is not unprecedented. At the 2008 Olympics, the Americans rebounded from a 2-0 opening defeat to Norway with five consecutive victories and the gold medal.
“It was actually really good to have this match,” forward Christen Press said Wednesday.
This defeat, however, will test this team’s resiliency in fresh ways. Since winning the 2019 World Cup in France, the Americans have faced light adversity, rolling through friendlies and minor tournaments while waiting out the one-year Olympic delay.
After stiff away tests against Sweden and France in April, the United States played five lightweight matches at home this summer and posted shutouts in each. Buildups to big competitions are about finalizing plans and fine-tuning performances, not the opponent or the result. And in their final warmup match, against Mexico on July 5, the Americans were fabulous in a four-goal first half with their ball movement, synchronization and finishing touch.
Perhaps, though, the easy set of games spurred overconfidence and shrouded the team’s reality. Smashing Jamaica and Mexico is much different than playing Sweden, a stalwart in the women’s game for 30 years and a common U.S. nuisance. Australia, a medal contender, will pose an even greater threat. The likes of the Netherlands, Britain and Brazil would await in the knockout stage.
The U.S. roster is old, and on Wednesday it looked its age. The starting lineup averaged 30.5 years. The subs included Carli Lloyd, 39, and Megan Rapinoe, 36. Julie Ertz, a sub, had not played since May because of a knee injury. Tobin Heath, a starter at 33, had made two prior appearances this year since recovering from multiple ailments.
The veterans of consecutive World Cup titles are nearing the end, but in building his squad, Andonovski trusted he could squeeze one more trophy out of them before implementing a young wave for the 2023 World Cup. The Olympic postponement offered him an opportunity to reassess, but he stuck by the core group.
In the months leading to the Olympics, he repeatedly brushed aside age concerns and said he would judge players solely on their performance in training and matches.
Now the seasoned Americans must rebound in a decisive way on two days’ rest and preparation. Andonovski does have the luxury of depth; most of his reserves would start almost anywhere else. Now, though, he has to get the combinations right.
All the blame for Wednesday’s debacle can’t be placed exclusively at the feet of the elders. The 20-somethings in the lineup, including Crystal Dunn and 2019 World Cup hero Rose Lavelle, were underwhelming as well. The vaunted midfield of Lavelle, Lindsey Horan and Samantha Mewis was a bust.
Sweden was tactically superior and won the aerial game, scoring on two headers and on the rebound of a header that had hit the post. Andonovski had no answers, suffering his first defeat since succeeding Jill Ellis in late 2019.
In a succinct recap, Soccer America said, “The USA passed to the Swedes more than to each other, defended lackadaisically [and] constantly seemed a step slower.” The body language did not seem right, either.
It wasn’t a good look for a team that has set the standard for women’s soccer since winning the first World Cup in 1991 and that has carried the flag for the American game while the men’s program stumbled along.
There were quiet concerns about the women’s team leading to these Olympics. Did it have the hunger and focus to become the first in the women’s game to win a World Cup and a gold medal in consecutive tries? Is the roster too old? Could Andonovski succeed at a major competition in his first stint as the national team coach?
After the opening dud in Tokyo, those questions have been amplified.