Emotions spilled out during interviews and in the locker room following the unthinkable: The U.S. women’s national soccer team, a two-time reigning champion and four-time overall winner, was going home, two weeks short of the final in Sydney.
The tender moments belied a cold reality: The Americans underperformed throughout the tournament, culminating with a shootout defeat to Sweden in the round of 16 and elimination at the earliest stage in the program’s unmatched history.
Until 2015, the round of 16 did not even exist in the women’s tournament. But as the sport has evolved — and FIFA has expanded the competition — the pathway to winning the trophy is growing both in the number of steps and the demands to keep up with a changing game.
Here, in a more competitive tournament playing out on both sides of the Tasman Sea, the Americans were not up to the task. Warning signs blinked during the first two group matches and peaked in a miserable third game. The Americans showed marked improvement in the round of 16 but lacked a finishing touch against an exceptional goalkeeper, Zecira Musovic.
U.S. Coach Vlatko Andonovski was not up to the task, either. He arranged a young roster for this tournament but over the course of four matches kept his faith in the veterans.
Alex Morgan, one of the greatest scorers in U.S. history, didn’t record a goal and made little impression in her four starts. A botched penalty kick in the opener against Vietnam was a sign of things to come.
Because Andonovski had not chosen a second natural striker for the roster, Morgan was the primary hope at the point of the attack. Winger Sophia Smith, 22, scored twice in the opener and seemed on her way to a big tournament. She did not score again. The other two goals came from a midfielder, Lindsey Horan.
The Americans had their chances: They posted 85 shots, including 28 on target, and 36 corner kicks across four games but were shut out in the last two. The previous time they went scoreless in consecutive matches was March 2017.
When he needed an attacking boost, Andonovski turned not to teenager Alyssa Thompson but to the 38-year-old Rapinoe. He seemed to think it was still 2019, when the winger starred at the World Cup in France. Rapinoe’s first two outings here should have dissuaded him from using her again. Against Sweden, though, he called her number in extra time. The decision felt sentimental, not tactical.
Throughout the tournament, Andonovski was also reluctant to use Ashley Sanchez, a 24-year-old midfielder who had received regular call-ups over the past year. She was the natural replacement for the injured — and then suspended — Rose Lavelle. Sanchez never left the bench.
Savannah DeMelo, an NWSL revelation who until last month had never played for the U.S. team, started the first two matches in place of Lavelle and didn’t add much.
To his credit, Andonovski reinforced the struggling midfield before the Sweden match by adding a second defensive-minded player, Emily Sonnett. With improved structure and shape, the U.S. team turned the corner and generated a bounty of scoring chances. Musovic, though, was unbreakable.
Andonovski’s USWNT future is unsettled
Always reluctant to talk about himself, Andonovski did not want to speculate about his future. His contract expires this year. He has faltered at each of his two major tournaments; two years ago, his team lost in the Olympic semifinals.
“As we always do after a major tournament, we will conduct a review to identify areas of improvement and determine our next steps,” the U.S. Soccer Federation said in a statement Monday. “As we look ahead, we embrace the hard work necessary to become champions again.”
One caveat: Andonovski did have to deal with a spate of injuries. Primed for a big World Cup, winger Mallory Swanson ruptured a knee tendon in the spring. Captain Becky Sauerbrunn was lost to a foot injury. Rising star Catarina Macario didn’t recover in time from an ACL injury. Sam Mewis and Abby Dahlkemper, starters in 2019, were ruled out with long-term ailments.
There was a ripple effect. With Sauerbrunn out, Andonovski felt he needed greater experience in central defense. So he turned to Ertz, who otherwise might have started in midfield. Without Ertz, the midfield lacked bite.
Has the USWNT program fallen behind?
The injuries, though, should not have slowed a U.S. program that has always enjoyed ample depth. At the 2019 tournament, defender Ali Krieger declared the United States had “the best team and the second-best team in the world.” That did not go over well in global circles — those arrogant Americans! — but at the time, it was not far from the truth.
Since then, player development has accelerated and the game has become more technical and sophisticated — not only in Europe but around the world. The U.S. Soccer Federation is on notice, as is the NWSL, which supplied all but one of the Americans’ World Cup players this summer.
Aside from disappointing results at the Olympics and the World Cup, there is another reason Andonovski seems likely to lose his job: A new sheriff has rolled into town. USSF sporting director Matt Crocker will work closely with the national team coaches in formulating plans and molding development paths.
A coaching change for the women’s program would need to happen soon: The Paris Olympics are a year away, and with the Americans having gone without a gold medal since 2012 and having failed to advance to the final in three of the past four major tournaments, there is no time to waste.
Rapinoe will retire this fall. Ertz said Sunday that she is done. At 38, Sauerbrunn is unlikely to return. Kelley O’Hara has played in three World Cups. Alyssa Naeher, 35, could soon give way to Casey Murphy in goal. Morgan’s best days are behind her.
The future belongs to Smith, Thompson and Trinity Rodman, to Swanson, Macario and Naomi Girma. They will encounter a women’s soccer scene that, through expanding opportunity and long-awaited investment, will look nothing like this U.S.-dominated era. It’s a new game — and the United States has work to do.