The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This USWNT core group has been one for the ages. It’s time to pass the baton.

Carli Lloyd reacts after the United States' semifinal loss to Canada in Tokyo. Afterward, she described herself as “just gutted.” (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
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KASHIMA, Japan — Her 39-year-old knees had held her upright for so many of these moments, World Cups and Olympics, when her team would prevail, always finding a way. But when the whistle blew Monday evening, ringing around cavernous and empty Ibaraki Kashima Stadium, Carli Lloyd couldn’t and wouldn’t remain standing. Accomplishments and résumés mean nothing in a moment when there’s only pain.

“Just gutted,” Lloyd said later. “I — we all — wake up early. We train late. We sacrifice. We give up so much. You want to win. … Just heartbreaking, really.”

Even after all this time. Even after all those matches. Even when the next loss, the last loss, could bring a release — like allowing the rest of your life to start.

The U.S. women’s national soccer team came to the Olympics to win gold, just as it had in London and Beijing and Athens and all the way back to Atlanta in 1996, when the sport debuted at the Games. It is the standard to which the players hold themselves. No manner of roster deconstruction or explanation about a transitional period will stop the casual fan in the United States from looking at the result, seeing a 1-0 loss to Canada in the semifinals of the Tokyo Olympics, and saying: “Canada? Really? Huh. Bummer.”

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“I mean, it sucks, obviously,” 36-year-old forward Megan Rapinoe said. “You never want to lose. You never want to lose in a world championship. You never want to lose to Canada, obviously. And you don’t want to lose playing the way we did. Every player in the locker room has 100 things that we would all want to do better. That’s probably the most frustrating part for all of us.”

Because this happens so infrequently — the United States lost twice in this event, was shut out three times, lost to Canada for the first time in 20 years and won only once in regulation — there is the most elemental question: Why?

“I don’t really know,” said Coach Vlatko Andonovski, who is at the helm of this juggernaut for the first time in a major international tournament. “. . . We’re going to have to go back and dig a little deeper and find out what is it that didn’t go the way we wanted to, or what is it that caused us to look the way we did.”

That answer will infuriate the online soccer cognoscenti because there are ways to find fault with Andonovski’s substitution rotation, to question his connection with his team. Rapinoe, sitting next to Andonvoski at a news conference table, dismissed that.

“The players have a lot to look at ourselves,” she said. “ … We need to perform better, period.”

Accountability is admirable. This is a program that, for decades, has had it in spades. What it didn’t have over two weeks in Japan — a stretch that now will conclude with one more match for bronze, not gold — is a freedom, a fluidity. This group, over this tournament, has been some combination of sloppy and tight.

“Football always needs joy,” Rapinoe said. “When the game is really played at its best is when you have that, and yeah, I feel like we haven’t been able to do that. Everything’s just been a little bit of a struggle — passes off here, there or whatever it is. So I hope we find it in the final. I certainly love playing with a big smile on my face much more than the opposite.”

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That’s how uncommon this position is for the American women: Rapinoe figured the next match is the final, because if Monday was the semis, isn’t the next match always the final?

“Our standards are perfection all the time,” she said.

That’s demanding. But real. They couldn’t find it here.

So the transition: It’s coming. The roster U.S. Soccer sent to Japan might have been better suited for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics five years ago (when the Americans fell in the quarterfinals) than the postponed Tokyo 2020 Games. It featured seven players born in the 1980s, and while there can be justification for each — Lloyd, Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Becky Sauerbrunn and others — the collective miles on the tires were at least a contributing factor to what can be described charitably as an uneven performance over five matches.

Fully half of this team — nine of 18 — is in its 30s. Had there been any fans in the stands here — American fans — it would have been time for tribute videos on the scoreboards at either end of the stadium. Lloyd could have wiped away tears and bowed out properly.

“Not going to lie: I miss having a normal life,” she said. “Miss home, miss my husband, family, friends. This is what you sacrifice for every four years — every five years — it’s all part of it. Eventually, it comes to an end, at some point.”

National teams across sports go through phases. At the 2004 Athens Games, perhaps the most important group in the history of American women’s soccer said goodbye. Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett and Brandi Chastain were mainstays on the group that won gold in Atlanta and put a stranglehold on the country in the summer of 1999, winning the World Cup on home soil.

The gold medal winner that August? It came off the head of Abby Wambach, a striker from Western New York who had just turned 24, who converted a corner by veteran Kristine Lilly. How’s that for a transition? Wambach would go on to score more international goals than any player in American history.

It would have been nice if that next wave were here, gaining experience so it can lead the way to the next World Cup. Instead, most of those players are back home. Midfielder Catarina Macario, 21; defender Tierna Davidson, 22; and World Cup hero Rose Lavelle, 26, were the youngest players on the roster. For success to be transferred to the next generation, doesn’t that next generation need to be folded into the group that had so much success?

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To that end, Rapinoe was asked about her playing future. She demurred.

“You guys are trying to put me out to pasture already,” Rapinoe said.

No, not exactly. Athletes of a certain standing and accomplishment have the right to decide when it should end. As Rapinoe pointed out, international soccer stars make these decisions not year-to-year but in four-year chunks. The next World Cup is in 2023, the next Olympics in 2024.

That seems far off. What’s immediate: the standards that make a loss in an Olympic semifinal unacceptable. Long after she finished crying on the field, Lloyd returned and ran sprints. Old habits, they’re hard to shake.

“Go home at night, look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself if you’ve given it everything you had,” Lloyd said. “That’s all you can do.”

That’s all these women have done, for decades of their lives. They can’t, and they won’t, do it forever.

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