CHOFU, Japan – Five years. That was how long it had been waiting for this game.
Five years since the US women’s soccer team hoped for an Olympic gold medal in Rio 2016 2016 was beaten by Sweden. Five years ago a defeat that forced Americans to look in the mirror and ask tough questions about their age, dominance and future.
Five years of waiting, only to end up directly in the same place.
The United States opened the Olympics in Tokyo on Wednesday, exactly where the Rio Games ended five years earlier: rolling from a humble, embarrassing defeat to Sweden.
Then there was a loss of penalties in the quarterfinals. This time it was not so close: Sweden dominated the USA, 3-0. By then, Sweden had bunkered down and frustrated the Americans. On Wednesday, it simply dominated from one side of the field to the other.
“Did we expect this result tonight? No, says US forward Megan Rapinoe. – It is frustrating and frustrating that it is Sweden.
“I do not remember when we last gave up a goal,” she added. “So giving up three is not good.”
Defender Kelley O’Hara admitted before the match that she and her teammates had been waiting for another shot against the Swedes at the games. “That’s what we’ve been waiting five years for to be back here,” she said.
They just never expected it to go like this.
Striker Stina Blackstenius delivered a goal in each half for Sweden, a nice header in the 25th minute and a pointless finish in the 54th that felt like a fair reward for a dominant performance on top of a Sweden attack that had the Americans on their heels almost as soon as the game started.
The United States tried everything to turn around. Positional tweaks to try to help a midfield that has been routinely exceeded. Compensation for reshaping a largely toothless attack. Reinforcements to strengthen a defense that was first stretched and then cut apart.
Even the most trusted veterans who helped seemed to have little effect. Carli Lloyd and Julie Ertz – in their first appearance in months – came on at half time, but Sweden soon doubled their lead. Rapinoe was deployed to offer some threats on the wing, but it never came true.
Even the departure – thankfully, in the opinion of the Americans – of Blackstenius, in the 64th minute, was not a balm; her replacement, Lina Hurtig, just picked up where she left off to rise for an open head and make it Sweden’s third goal eight minutes after he came on.
The defeat was the Americans’ first in 24 matches under coach Vlatko Andonovski and their first against any opponent since a loss to France in January 2019. It will force them to fight to recover in the sprint that is the Olympic tournament: Games against New Zealand ( on Saturday) and Australia (on Tuesday) come quickly in a row in the first round, and tougher opponents such as Great Britain, Brazil and the Netherlands can wait in the medal round.
“You lose points at the start of a tournament, you’re in do-or-die mode,” Rapinoe said.
But first, the Americans must find out what went wrong at Tokyo Stadium.
Perhaps the defeat would not have been a complete surprise. Sweden is no stranger to the USA – the team meeting on Wednesday was their 10th in a major championship, including games in the last five World Cups – and Sweden could have been forgiven a little self-confidence after it became a strong performance in April against the USA in 1-1- receipt in Stockholm.
That game seemed, at the time, a rare mistake for an American team to lose is anathema. Until Wednesday, a draw in Stockholm had been the only blemish on the Americans’ record under Andonovski (22-0-1).
Wednesday’s win was a much stronger statement, the kind of one-sided achievement that the United States is more used to handing out than swallowing. And it will raise tough questions about Andonovsky’s dependence on an aging core – each forward on the US list is over 30 – and about his commitment to past performance as an indicator of future performance.
While the Olympics were delayed one year due to the pandemic, the US list is relatively unchanged since the 2019 World Cup for women. It includes not only its veteran front line but also question marks such as Ertz, whose appearance was her first in any team in months after a leg injury this year, and Tobin Heath, who has only recently returned from injury.
“I do not judge the players by their age,” Andonovski said when choosing his Olympic list. “They are either good, perform well and can help us win, or they can not.”
He knows it would be a mistake to dismiss his team as a gold medal favorite from a single achievement. Seventeen of the players seeking gold in Japan, for example, were part of the team that lifted the World Cup in France two years ago. A handful have gold medals from previous games. But now they have to call on the kind of gravel that gave these awards if they were to claim another and do so in the crucible of a scorching Japanese summer and the compressed Olympic schedule.
On Wednesday, at least some of the most experienced players preached patience.
“It will be a tough tournament,” said forward Christen Press. – But we knew it would be a tough tournament.
Defender Becky Sauerbrunn, whose night went worse than most, seemed ready to move on quickly, although she acknowledged that the tournament – at least from an American perspective – had now changed.
“Bad night tonight,” she said. – We have a lot of work ahead of us.