MELBOURNE, Australia — The U.S. women’s national team crashed out of the 2023 World Cup here on Sunday, losing to longtime nemesis Sweden in the Round of 16 on penalties.
They largely dominated 120 messy, physical, tense minutes. They tested Swedish goalkeeper Zecira Musovic again and again. They played well enough to win in regulation, or at least in extra time, but couldn’t find a breakthrough.
And then, in the shootout, they slid to their worst World Cup finish ever.
Andi Sullivan and Fridolina Rolfö buried their opening spot-kicks. Lindsey Horan and Elin Rubensson both held serve in Round 2. Kristie Mewis, fresh off the bench in the 120th minute, went top corner to give the U.S. a 3-2 lead, and that’s when Sweden flinched. Nathalie Björn fired over the bar.
Megan Rapinoe also skied her penalty high and wide. But then Alyssa Naeher sprung to her left to make the decisive save.
With the sixth kick, remarkably, Naeher stepped up and scored for the U.S., straight down the middle. She then came inches away from getting a hand to Magdalena Eriksson’s sixth attempt for Sweden, but that, too, found the back of the net.
In the seventh round, Kelley O’Hara clipped the post. And then Lina Hurtig converted by a matter of inches.
Public confidence had faded during a 0-0 draw with Portugal. Only a firm goalpost had saved the USWNT from a shocking group-stage exit. Players wore spooked expressions at the final whistle. In the immediate aftermath, with metaphorical panic sirens blaring, none of them could quite pinpoint what went wrong.
But over the coming days, they settled. By Saturday, they’d “broken down what went wrong, and how we can fix that,” Alex Morgan said. Internally, they actually did feel “confident,” perhaps blindly confident, confident that they could rise to do-or-die occasions because, as Julie Ertz has said, “it’s what we do.”
And on Sunday, they did. At least for the 120 minutes before the shootout.
Head coach Vlatko Andonovski tweaked the tactics, inserting Emily Sonnett for the suspended Rose Lavelle. Sonnet had never started in midfield for the USWNT before. She’d largely been a utility defender since her teenage years, until this season. But she came into the U.S. lineup as a second defensive midfielder, and helped the Americans control a messy game.
With Sonnett and Andi Sullivan in a double-pivot, Lindsey Horan had freedom to roam in an attacking midfield position. She found pockets of space, especially to the right of center. On the left, Sophia Smith often tucked inside, with Crystal Dunn getting high from her fullback position, and Sullivan or center back Naomi Girma covering.
And midway through the first half, at almost the exact moment when they’d faded against the Netherlands and Portugal, the USWNT took full control. Trinity Rodman was active and dangerous. Horan stung a header off the top of the crossbar. At the other end, Alyssa Naeher dealt well with two challenging Sweden corners — which always promised to be the Swedes’ biggest threat.
It was the USWNT’s best half of the tournament. Unfortunately, it ended scoreless.
The Americans picked up where they left off after halftime. Horan forced a world-class save from Swedish keeper Zecira Musovic. Dunn and Girma snuffed out the rare Swedish attack. Lynn Williams replaced Rodman — who’d been sick earlier this week — after 60 minutes, and began terrorizing the left side of the Swedish defense with her pace.
But still, they couldn’t find a breakthrough. Musovic palmed away an Alex Morgan header in the 89th minute.
The game went to extra time, and still, they pushed. But Musovic pushed away a low Williams shot, and Sweden scrambled the ball clear.
It stayed 0-0 into the second half of extra time, and they pushed some more. But Musovic stuck out a left hand to deny Smith.
And then the U.S. came up short, inches short, in the shootout.
The Americans went down fighting. But in the end, no U.S. team had ever finished worse than third at the Women’s World Cup; this one will finish something like 12th.
No U.S. team had ever scored fewer than 12 goals at a Women’s World Cup; this one bagged only four.
No U.S. team had ever failed to reach the final of consecutive major tournaments; this one, in 2023, never came close.
The USWNT’s flop will almost certainly cost Andonovski his job. It will also force U.S. Soccer to reckon with underlying reasons. It is evidence that the world has caught up, yes, but it might’ve exposed deep-seated problems, with a malfunctioning youth system chief among them.
And for the players, the ones who’d dreamed of three-peat glory, who’d borne incredible pressure and stretched for undue expectations, it will be devastating.
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