There was a flash shortly after the beginning of the last half of the U.S. women’s national soccer team’s semifinal defeat to archrivals Canada that encapsulated the frustration of the Americans’ 2020 Olympics. In the 48th minute, U.S. winger Tobin Heath and fullback Crystal Dunn combined down the left sideline, not too far into the Canadian half. The move got the pair past the primary line of Canada’s defense and into space. Canada was retreating toward its own goal; Rose Lavelle was charging into the world that they had just vacated ahead of the goal. After their interplay freed Dunn on the surface, Heath tried to impress a choice from the subsequent defender, charging forward with abandon to force the Canadian to settle on between staying with Dunn and therefore the ball or tracking the new dangerous runner.
For a quick moment in what had been a cagey, physical affair for the primary 45 minutes, the U.S. appeared to spot daylight. Instead, Dunn’s early cross into the middle hit Heath as she ran by. The ball deflected all the well beyond the endline for a Canadian goal kick. Throughout the tournament, the USWNT—reigning World Cup champions, undefeated in 44 matches entering these Olympics—just never appeared to be quite on an equivalent page. Despite the talent on the opposing rosters it faced, the U.S. always seemed first and foremost to be beating itself.
But for a short time during Monday’s defeat, there was hope. there’s no other team within the world the USWNT has the maximum amount of experience playing, or beating, like Canada, which comfort showed. whilst it struggled, again, with its passing and attacking movement, there was a way that it had been less unnerved by the Canadian physicality than it had been in its earlier matches. The U.S. controlled this game in a way it wasn’t ready to against Sweden, Netherlands, or maybe Australia. The Americans had more possession time and 3 times as many shots and shots on goal as their opponents. Canada hadn’t beaten the U.S. women since 2001. The U.S. had never lost a competitive match to its northern neighbors.
But its advantage was a small one, and it wasn’t ready to convert it into goals. Most of its shots barely troubled Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé. Canada, meanwhile, turned the thinnest of chances into its winner. After an extended kick forward was flicked on, U.S. defender Tierna Davidson was tracking back to clear it when Canadian substitute Deanne Rose ran around her blindside and tried to win the ball. Davidson made contact on the sting of the box. Rose fell and didn’t even appear to protest as she pushed herself up, but a VAR review confirmed the USWNT would face a decisive penalty kick late within the last half for the second straight game.
Unfortunately for the U.S., its hero from the quarterfinal against the Netherlands, goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, exited the sport within the half with a knee injury after a clumsy landing. Her replacement, longtime backup Adrianna Franch, maybe a two-time National Women’s Soccer League Goalkeeper of the Year who was on the roster for the planet Cup in 2019. She is quite qualified to step in, even in an Olympic semifinal, albeit the glacial pace of the U.S. roster’s turnover since that tournament means she’s only appeared during six games for her country. But she couldn’t get to Jessie Fleming’s penalty kick. (It was an honest one, and it’s unlikely Naeher would have stopped it either.) Canada didn’t threaten after the goal, but the U.S. barely did either. Its best chance was a header from Carli Lloyd that went over Labbé and off the crossbar.
The U.S. hopes of following its World Cup triumph with an Olympic trophy ended with a whimper. Now it’s up to U.S. manager Vlatko Andonovski to form the right diagnosis of his team’s failure. Only a couple of members of his squad—most notably Julie Ertz, Naeher before the injury, and Davidson before the penalty—could be said to possess played well in Japan. The team looked but the sum of its parts. The offense was disconnected from Alex Morgan and therefore the target forward role she played so well in 2019. Rose Lavelle’s skill on the ball wasn’t the devastating weapon it had been in 2019. The U.S. midfield was largely too passive and straightforward to play through. The forwards rarely drew fouls in dangerous areas, leaving the U.S. team without the probabilities from free-kicks and penalties that powered Megan Rapinoe to the Golden Boot in 2019.
Treating this type of team-wide malaise doesn’t necessarily mean culling the whole team, or maybe squiring off its oldest players with a testimonial and a watch. There has never been a compulsory retirement age from the USWNT; this is often a team that has always placed a premium on veteran leadership. Christie Rampone at 36 in 2011. Rampone at 39 and Abby Wambach at 35 and Carli Lloyd at 32 at the 2015 World Cup. Carli Lloyd at 36 within the 2019 World Cup. Carli Lloyd at 39 at the Olympics in 2021.
Lloyd—who is open in her admiration for Tom Brady’s longevity and who has called her team’s run to the planet Cup title in 2019 “absolutely the worst time of my life,” because she thought she should be starting (she appeared as a substitute altogether seven games)—does not seem able to go gently into that farewell. Rapinoe, at 36, has been reduced largely to a substitute’s role in these Games, but remains probably the simplest U.S. place kick taker, and positively its best penalty taker. Becky Sauerbrunn, also 36, remains the captain and an important organizational presence in defense. None of them were as effective within these Olympics as they were in the World Cup, but there are elements that they each still bring back the team that aren’t easily replaceable. But something has got to shake out the staleness that permeated the team’s time in Tokyo. The team has been built around this core of veterans and its strengths for therefore long that it’s become insular and rigid. Those three, and therefore the other eight players on the roster over the age of 30, can’t keep playing forever.
Eventually, the U.S. goes to possess to find out to try to without them, or the players are getting to need to learn to adapt how they play to require advantage of the strengths not just of this particular squad but of the pool of players as a whole. there’s a young talent who can push into the team; subsequent two years are going to be about incorporating players like Midge Purce, Sophia Smith, Ashley Sanchez, Catarina Macário—all of whom are under 26. It’s tough to understand which of those are going to be the spark the U.S. needs. None of them have quite 10 appearances for the national team in their careers. Macário, the sole one on the Olympic roster, played for just six minutes the whole tournament. Many of the younger players are performing well within the NWSL this year, but the cancellation of the 2020 season and its replacement with the abbreviated Challenge Cup tournament severely cut into their sample size. But they’re good players, and that they deserve the prospect to prove that they will benefit the team on their own terms—and not just attempt to fill the shoes of Christen Press or Tobin Heath or Sam Mewis or whomever.
We saw a touch of what this might appear as if within the quarterfinals against the Netherlands when new starter Lynn Williams sparked the sputtering U.S. offense with a goal and an assist. But albeit Williams got the beginning again versus Canada, Andonovski pulled her again within the first wave of (noninjury) substitutions, letting a number of equivalent veterans plan to close things out. Andonovski’s tenure as an NWSL manager was marked by a willingness to adapt, and there’s little for him to lose from introducing more flexibility into his roster-building and tactical deciding. In one scenario, the team evolves into the version of itself that it’ll be at subsequent World Cup, in Australia and New Zealand. In another, the New Look becomes a valuable backup decide to be wheeled out when the old ways prove lacking, as they did for many of those Olympics.
All those decisions are for an additional time. The 2023 World Cup maybe a little but two years away, but first the USWNT has got to play for a bronze within the only international third-place game that really matters. Retirements, realignments, and therefore the full post-mortems—maybe all of them got sick at an equivalent time?—will come after Thursday’s match against Australia. The old gang will get one last chance at a tournament prize if they will get out of their own way.