The Americans will already have landed back home after a doomed campaign that got off to an unsatisfying start, became consumed by problems and never found an appropriate antidote for them.
Bad luck, small margins? Maybe, but this was a brutal end to a historic quest.
Sunday’s penalty shootout defeat to Sweden at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium was a bit of a paradox. The team deserved better on the night. In this round of 16 battle against an old nemesis, storied rival and the world No. 3, the Americans were stronger throughout, more enterprising, more dangerous, more consistent and more comfortable on the ball.
Sweden goalkeeper Zecira Musovic had the game of her life, the shootout featured drama on an extraordinary scale, a VAR review, clutch players missing wildly, a goalkeeper scoring, whatever you could think of.
Before that, in regular and extra time, there was close shave after close shave, and you felt a goal just had to come, any minute now, but alas it never did.
This was a spirited effort from the Americans, and a vast improvement upon what came before it. No one could claim they didn’t want it enough, or weren’t game enough.
Yet when it came down to it, the opportunity was there, in the most nerve-wracking cauldron of all — the duel from the penalty spot with the eyes of the world watching.
And, at that moment, they were found wanting.
Megan Rapinoe, one of women’s soccer’s biggest superstars, blasted her effort high and off target. Sophia Smith, the young emerging superstar of the squad, skewed her kick wide with the opportunity to advance at the tips of her toes. Kelley O’Hara, voice of veteran optimism, hit the post deep into the shootout.
Musovic was brilliant all evening, but she didn’t have to make a save in the shootout.
In all truth, this is not really a hard-luck story. There can be no sour grapes here.
The USA had already used up its quota of chance, when the post came to their rescue in the group stage against Portugal, a survival act that ultimately just delayed its exit by a few days.
This was time catching up with the USWNT, for no squad, however great, however much glorious history in the tank, can afford to coast through the group games and then try to turn it around later.
This represents the first time the USA won’t reach at least the semifinals at a World Cup.
This is what it’s like to come in ranked No. 1, as the defending No. 1, believing you’re the best, feeling like you’re the best, only to discover that everyone else has spent the last four years getting ready to show you why you’re not, not any longer.
Less than six weeks ago, the USWNT held a sendoff media event in which coach Vlatko Andonovski said anything other than winning the tournament would be a failure, Rapinoe talked about the giant target on the team’s back and much was made of how the influx of World Cup rookies were a fresh generation who claimed to understand how to replicate the legacy left before them.
The irony of it all was that the best was saved for last.
Sunday’s effort was an absolute tour de force compared to what came before it. The first three games, by comparison, were eminently forgettable.
Just like any time elimination is reached, these things have to be taken as a whole, not just off the most recent sample size. A hard look in the mirror will reveal there were blunders that were institutional, a lack of adaptability and real headaches against teams willing to play with imagination through the midfield.
Plus, shockingly for a program that has produced generations of stars, the reality that this squad lack the required quality and pure, game-changing skill, when stacked up against world-class opposition.
There were other blunders. Did the dancing that attracted so much attention after the Portugal game indicate arrogance or a lack of focus?
We will never know for sure, but it is the kind of thing that doesn’t get brought up if you’re dominating like you used to.
The USA wasn’t in that spot. The end was better, but it still wasn’t enough.
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