MELBOURNE, Australia — As the players of the U.S. women’s national team walked one-by-one through the mixed zone outside Melbourne Rectangular Stadium to speak with reporters, it was obvious they’d rather not.
Sophia Smith and Julie Ertz were crying. Kelley O’Hara stared down at the ground, crestfallen. Everyone was reeling from a dramatic penalty kick shootout on Sunday that saw Sweden send the USWNT home in the round of 16, the USWNT’s earliest exit in a major tournament ever.
A reporter asked Alex Morgan whether the players had been set up to succeed by the coaching staff, which includes manager Vlatko Andonovski. “I mean, I can’t even process that question, sorry,” she said before walking away.
The time for pointing fingers and placing blame will come soon enough. It has to with the Olympics — another major tournament for the USWNT — coming in less than one year.
The process, of course, starts with looking at the 120 minutes against Sweden in which the USWNT couldn’t find a goal, at a World Cup in which the Americans entered as favorites but could never click into gear.
“We dominated the game and created way more chances than them,” said forward Trinity Rodman after the match. “The only thing we were missing was a goal.”
Rodman was talking about that 0-0 stalemate against Sweden, but she could’ve been talking about the USWNT’s group stage, too. In those three games, they could only muster one win and two draws for their worst-ever five points in a World Cup group stage. That meant the No. 1-ranked USWNT couldn’t top their group and were forced to face No. 3-ranked Sweden in the round of 16 instead of a far easier opponent.
After the clamoring from fans and critics for Andonovski to make some tactical changes after the listless group stage, he did so, switching the central midfield to a so-called double pivot where Emily Sonnett played a defensive-oriented role with Andi Sullivan. It was perhaps prompted by the yellow card suspension of midfielder Rose Lavelle, but it worked — Sullivan and Sonnett worked well together, and Sweden had trouble getting through the middle of the park.
The USWNT looked better against Sweden than they have all tournament, and yet, the same problems persisted. The Americans couldn’t create enough high-quality scoring chances, and whenever they did, they couldn’t finish.
Some credit goes to Sweden goalkeeper Zecira Musovic. Her diving parry of a scorching Lindsey Horan volley in the 53rd minute was excellent. Her block on Morgan’s 90th-minute header was just as good. In all, Musovic made 11 saves.
Many of the USWNT’s chances just weren’t enough to test the Swedish goalkeeper, though, either shot straight at Musovic or missing the goal entirely. The U.S. players never put their shooting boots on at this tournament, which is difficult to explain from such an attack-oriented team.
At the 2023 World Cup, the USWNT managed just four goals in four games. In their previous eight World Cups, they averaged 17.3 goals per tournament.
It’s not as if there weren’t chances.
Against Sweden, the Americans generated around 1.3 expected goals (xG), a measure of whether the spots that players shot from should be expected to result in goals. Over the course of the tournament, the USWNT generated more than nine xG, yet only scored four, which makes them the most underperforming team at this tournament by that metric.
Again, the players and Andonovski said they felt they deserved the win. Again, it didn’t matter.
“We deserved to win this game,” Andonovski said. “We created enough to win this game. I thought we put up a fight, a battle. We represented this country proud.”
The yips in front of goal even translated to the game-deciding penalty shootout where three players — Smith, O’Hara and Megan Rapinoe — didn’t even put their shots on frame. If they had, the USWNT would’ve won that shoutout thanks to goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher‘s save on Rebecka Blomqvist.
This probably all seems like a player problem — the players ought to be able to finish their chances — but it was only two years ago under Andonovski that the USWNT had trouble scoring in the Tokyo Olympics, which left them settling for a bronze medal after some poor performances. In that tournament, the failure to finish looked different — the USWNT had nine would-be goals called back for being offside — but it again was the problem behind their shortcomings.
This will go down as perhaps the low point for the USWNT from an on-field perspective. Their worst major tournament finish before this had been a quarterfinal exit in the 2016 Olympics at the hands of, you guessed it, Sweden.
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Morgan faulted herself for not scoring.
“As a forward, you’re judged deservedly on goals and there was none from me,” she said. “I’m really disappointed with myself. I wish I could’ve provided more for this team.”
After the match, as the Swedish players walked the perimeter of the field and waved at fans as Abba’s “Dancing Queen” blared over the loud speakers. The USWNT huddled.
“There wasn’t much to be said. I think everyone was just feeling the feelings,” Rodman said of that huddle. “The main thing was that, at the end of the day, we will always be a team no matter who’s on it and who’s off of it. We just need to feel what we need to feel because everyone’s feeling the same but different things in different parts of their journeys.”
Indeed, for some of these players, their international careers are over. Rapinoe had announced before the tournament she’d retire. Ertz in the mixed down said she would never wear the crest again. But then there are young players like Rodman, Smith and Alyssa Thompson — the goal scorers the USWNT will need — who figure to be the future of the team.
The lessons from this disappointment will be difficult to process. Throughout this tournament, the players were asked how they improve their finishing and there was never a good, satisfying and concrete answer.
Either way, the World Cup moves on without the USWNT.
“It’s hard to think of moving on as it kind of still feels like you’re gonna get ready for the next game,” Ertz said, “and that’s not the case for us.”