A shocking result in Brasilia meant celebration for Sweden, and heartbreak for the United States. The USWNT came into the Olympic Tournament heavily favored and expected to make it at least to the gold medal match, a feat they had accomplished at every Olympiad prior to the current one.
Instead they were knocked out in the quarterfinals by Sweden, a team that finished third in their group and are coached by former USWNT coach Pia Sundhage. The defeat can be broken down into five major categories.
The “Curse of Manaus”
Manaus, nestled in the Amazon rainforest, is an inhospitable place for soccer. The remote location and hellish climate make it a challenge to any team who plays there. Manaus had an effect on players in the men’s World Cup in 2014, with six out of the seven teams that played there and advanced losing their next game.
The U.S. women had the misfortune of playing their previous game against Colombia in Manaus, and it clearly took a toll on the squad. Coming into the game USWNT coach Jill Ellis insisted that the United States were not at a disadvantage, while Pia Sundhage argued they were. Despite having rested several key players in the Colombia match the U.S. looked fatigued early in the game, an issue that only became worse over the 120+ minutes of soccer they played.
Ellis had to go to her bench early and used all four subs given to her (a fourth substitution is given should the match go to extra time, as this one did). Megan Rapinoe and Mallory Pugh were brought in early in the second half, but both had to be replaced later in the match by Crystal Dunn and Kristen Press. The Swedish counter-attacking strategy exploited the fatigue of the U.S. women, forcing the USWNT into tricky defensive scenarios.
Poor Set Pieces
After watching the match or even simply looking at statistics, one can come nowhere near the conclusion that the United States did not have their fair share of chances.
The U.S. women had 12 corners and 15 free-kicks awarded to them, yet failed to score off of any. Poor free-kicks by Tobin Heath and Carli Lloyd were put off target and Megan Rapinoe’s corners were consistently too long or off target. When a side fails to execute on all of their 27 set pieces, they are bound to lose a match.
It does not take a genius to know that set pieces take (at least) two players, one to put in the pass, the other to finish. The USWNT’s finishing was virtually non-existent, with shot after shot going off target or into a Swedish defender. The United States took 26 shots over the 120 minute game, yet put only 5 on target.
The Swedish back line was noticeably unstable throughout the game, with several miscommunications and errors that the U.S. needed to take full advantage of. Alex Morgan managed to score the lone goal after a horrendous defensive error by Sweden, the only bright spot in this category.
Some call it cowardly, others call it cunning. Whatever you thought of Sweden’s game plan for this match, it undoubtedly was effective. As is typical of out-matches teams, Sweden opted for a deep-lying (even though it wasn’t) counter-attacking strategy. They let the United States have lengthy possessions, hoping to snag a goal off of a counter (which they did).
While this strategy gave the illusion of the USWNT controlling the ball in attacking areas, a closer look shows how the Swedish subtly cut off passing routes, often only leaving one open player. They controlled the U.S. throughout their side of the field and made Pia Sundhage look like a tactical genius.
Lack of Star Power
The stars of the U.S. Women’s National Team came up very empty handed in the game, with only Alex Morgan having anything to show for her effort (and the goal didn’t require much). Carli Lloyd missed on several free-kicks and put more than her fair share of chances off target.
Morgan herself had her penalty saved, and Kristin Press put hers horribly over the bar. Megan Rapinoe (coming back from injury) didn’t have the best corners, and the American fullbacks were ineffective.
(Wo)Men of the Match
1. Hedvig Lindahl, Sweden
Credit must be given to the Swedish keeper, Lindahl. She made four fantastic saves, arguably the more important and impressive coming on Alex Morgan’s opening penalty of the shootout.
2. Crystal Dunn, United States
Dunn came on as a substitute for Megan Rapinoe but made her mark on the game with fantastic attacking runs, a couple of lengthy dribbles, and very dangerous crosses.
3. Stina Blackstenius, Sweden
Blackstenius scored Sweden’s goal in the 61st minute to give them the lead, as well as creating several attacking chances throughout the game,
–Both teams had a goal wrongfully disallowed in the final minutes
-Sweden will face Brazil in the semifinals.