KASHIMA, Japan — The U.S. women’s national team crashed out of its chase for Olympic gold with a dud of a 1-0 loss to Canada here on Monday, a fitting end to a pursuit in which the most dominant soccer team in the world never hit top gear.
Officially, the Americans will play for bronze on Friday because of a 75th-minute penalty, conceded by Tierna Davidson for a foul on Deanne Rose, awarded after a video review. Canada’s Jessie Fleming converted it. Backup U.S. goalkeeper Adrianna Franch just barely couldn't save it.
But really, the Americans fell short of the final because they were poor, throughout the Games and here on a sleepy, sticky-hot evening at the Ibaraki Kashima Stadium. They had no rhythm. No composure. No verve.
Instead, there were errant passes. Sloppy touches. Fatigue. Frustration. And a first loss to Canada since 2001.
"Sucks," Megan Rapinoe said, in response to a question about what was going through her head at final whistle. "Really sh—y."
Head coach Vlatko Andonovski and fans alike had envisioned a fluid, ferocious USWNT that pressed opponents high up the field, picked them apart through midfield, and pounced on mistakes. It did very little of that here in Japan, throughout the tournament and Monday night.
It tried, but didn’t have the legs to stifle teams in the attacking half, and didn’t have the sharpness to play the beautiful, clockwork soccer that it knew — or thought — it could play.
"I think that's one of the most frustrating things," Rapinoe said. "We just — I don't know. It's not like we have a bad vibe. The group is feeling good and everything. But we just haven't been able to find that juice that we normally do. So, just, yeah, sucks."
And in the struggle, it learned why the World Cup-Olympic double has, for almost three decades now, been an unconquerable challenge.
No team has ever won the Women’s World Cup and Olympic gold medal back-to-back, and the reason often postulated is that success restrains evolution. Formulas that lead to trophies are retained, and trotted out again 13 months later, by which points stars have aged, opponents have caught on and tactics have become outdated.
U.S. Soccer interrupted that logic when it introduced Andonovski as its new head coach months after World Cup glory. Andonovski brought a new system, new styles, and new energy to the USWNT. They didn’t lose a game for 19 months. They entered the Olympics unbeaten in 44 games, and seemed impervious to all that had felled previous World Cup winners. “I don’t even remember the last time we gave up a goal,” Rapinoe would later say.
Then they arrived in Tokyo, and realized 25 months is a really long time.
They weren’t stale tactically. They were just old, weighed down by a grueling five games in 13 days, all in 90-plus-degree heat and humidity. They were pummeled by Sweden, and neutralized by Australia, and clutch against the Netherlands, but never the world-beating machine that anybody thought they’d be.
"Things just didn't fall our way," Alex Morgan said. "We didn't play our best. In a lot of the games, we made a lot of technical errors. Everyone. Yeah. I don't know why. I felt like for a lot of the game, we had possession. We dominated. But again, we couldn't put the ball in the back of the net. All of that doesn't matter if we don't go up on the score."
Against Canada, they lost goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, hero of the quarterfinal victory over the Dutch, to a leg injury in the first half. Franch, who took her place, was seeing her first action of the tournament.
On Monday, they came alive at times in the second half. The first half had yielded zero shots on target, and really zero attacks of note whatsoever from the U.S. After an hour, Andonovski went to his big-name stars off the bench. Megan Rapinoe, Christen Press and Carli Lloyd replaced Lynn Williams, Tobin Heath and Morgan, all of whom had been anonymous. And the U.S. immediately perked up.
In truth, it had been better after halftime even before the subs. Rose Lavelle and Crystal Dunn were lively. Lindsey Horan combined with Dunn down the left.
Lloyd finally tested Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe with a curling shot in the 65th minute.
A few minutes later, Julie Ertz rose to meet a Rapinoe corner, and met it well, but Labbe tipped it over the bar.
And then there was a Lindsey Horan header that settled right into Labbe’s arms. The U.S., suddenly, seemed to have a firm grasp on the game. Canada couldn’t get hold of the ball, or out of its defensive half. Press tested Labbe again in the 71st minute. Lloyd later clipped the bar with a header.
But it was Davidson’s defensive lapse, against the run of play, that proved costly. She didn’t feel a Canadian attacker on her back, and swung her leg. The ref initially gave a goal kick. Upon review, she pointed to the spot. Fleming tucked the spot-kick in the side-netting. And the U.S. is playing for bronze.
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