PAGerfection has long been the standard for the United States women’s soccer team, a burden embraced through the years. By that measure, the Americans were a shadow of themselves through the group stage of the Tokyo Olympics, losing their opener 3-0 to Sweden, and playing Australia to a dull, scoreless draw on Tuesday to advance to the knockout stage.
A cliché more grounded in realism, sin emabargo, is one which US players have recited at past major tournaments: the group stage is just about getting through, and the ‘second’ tournament begins in the knockouts. The Americans are at phase two now, as they always are, but their gold-medal aspirations look far less certain than they did a week ago.
Most concerning for the US will not be the results, but the inconsistency in performances and the deviation from the core identity of a team which has won back-to-back World Cups.
Sweden made the US look like a shell of themselves in the opener, swarming the midfield to suffocate service to a dangerous forward line and forcing the American defenders into countless mistakes. The loss ended a 44-game unbeaten streak, and the result – at the hands of a longtime nemesis and fellow medal contender – was not as concerning as the process which led to it.
A relentlessly aggressive American mentality is often cited as a reason to never count out the US women, even when the tactical or technical elements might fail them. It is the DNA of the team, which has been passed on through generations, an unmistakable presence in the four World Cup-winning and four Olympic gold-winning teams. Esto, después de todo, is a team that refused to slow down even when they were 13-0 up against Thailand at the last World Cup.
None of that was evident against Sweden.
“At the end of the day, the mentality wasn’t there,” US midfielder Lindsey Horan said of the loss to Sweden. “We couldn’t really pinpoint exactly what it was, but that’s not ever the case for the US women’s national team.”
“There were moments in the [Sweden] game where the team just didn’t look like the team that I’ve known for years, even before I coached,” US head coach Vlatko Andonovski said.
A 6-1 victory over New Zealand followed, restoring some order while leaving lingering questions about the US defense.
Tuesday’s draw against Australia looked another step removed from the typical United States identity. Andonovski’s side dialed back the pressure and conceded possession, daring Australia to try to break them down. The approach stymied Australia’s dangerous counterattack, but it also failed entirely to challenge an error-prone Matildas defensive unit.
Australia coach Tony Gustavsson, a US assistant on the 2015 y 2019 World Cup championship teams, said after the match that he was surprised by how passive the Americans’ typically aggressive pressing game was on Tuesday. At one point in the second half, the Americans dropped off pressure so much that Australia’s back four casually knocked the ball back and forth between themselves for over a minute without being challenged. Both teams were clearly happy to settle for the draw.
Pragmatism is not a trait often associated with the US women, but it was an effective, logical strategy against Australia. Andonovski knew that a draw was enough to advance, and that moving up to first place in the group was likely impossible, with Sweden defeating New Zealand as expected. His strategy to have his players sit off Australia and play for the draw (he did say that the intent was to win, but conceded that “a good, professional performance” was priority No 2) allowed the US to conserve energy in the middle of an unforgiving Olympic schedule. Combined with the rest some starters got as part of planned roster rotation in the group stage, it may turn out to be a sound path to the gold medal, even if it causes some handwringing by the outside world.
At the 2015 Copa Mundial, with Jill Ellis as coach, the US women limped through the group stage and round of 16 – shouldering an onslaught of criticism and doubt – before changing their tactical system and peaking in the final with an emphatic, 5-2 win over Japan. There is other precedent for happy endings despite slow starts, including the US victory at the 2008 Juegos Olímpicos.
Next up are the Netherlands in Friday’s quarter-final, in a rematch of the 2019 World Cup final. The Dutch have had their own defensive problems in this tournament, but forward Vivianne Miedema is in form with eight goals scored thus far, and the Netherlands’ front line will be a stiff test for a US defense which has been unusually poor at marking runners and clearing its line at this tournament.
Gustavsson referenced a commonly misquoted Charles Darwin saying while praising his team’s performance against the United States. He said he has been reciting the phrase to his team for months as they battle adversity, but Gustavsson’s words feel even more applicable to his old team right now.
“It’s not the strongest that survive, nor the most intelligent that survives,” Gustavsson recounted. “It’s the one that is most adaptable to change.”
The US women adapted in a surprising way on Tuesday. They will need a much better, more consistent effort to beat the Netherlands and avoid a second consecutive Olympics quarter-final exit.